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LICORICE PIZZA: VALLEY HIGH

Paul Thomas Anderson grew up in the suburban L.A. sprawl known as the San Fernando Valley and has set several of his films there (notably Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love). His latest is a flashback to 1973, a kaleidoscopic series of vignettes involving a high-school hustler (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper) and an “older woman” (Alana Haim) who engage in a series of comedic misadventures together.

There is no obvious storyline. The filmmaker immerses us in a particular time and place he loves that enables him to drop names that may have no meaning to most of his audience (like the once-swanky restaurant Tail O’ the Cock, or the title establishment, a fondly remembered used-record shop) as he spins his entertaining tall-tale.

Hoffman is endearing as a teenage misfit who creates his own yellow brick road and finds a 20-something partner (Haim) to skip alongside him. He seizes an opportunity to sell waterbeds and takes it as far as he can before moving on to his next brainstorm, opening a pinball parlor. At one point he meets a charismatic older man (said to be inspired by William Holden and played by Sean Penn) and falls under his boozy spell. A short time later he gets tacit permission from hair stylist-turned-producer Jon Peters to steal his truck, which leads to a hair-raising action scene through the hills of Encino. Then his partner turns to more serious matters as she volunteers in the election campaign of city councilman Joel Wachs (played by filmmaker Benny Safdie), even though he is not the knight in shining armor he appears to be.

To reduce Licorice Pizza to an outline of its narrative is to undermine—and underestimate—its spontaneity and charm. Unpretentiously filmed (and looking great in the 70mm prints in circulation) the movie has a what-the-hell attitude that’s infectious and offers star-making parts to its youthful leads. Cooper Hoffman is effortlessly likable but only time will tell if Hoffman has the chops to follow in his father’s footsteps. Haim is part of a sister-act vocal group that is already enjoying great success with Anderson directing their music videos.

Anderson also has a Fellini-esque eye for odd and interesting characters who populate his films. Some of them have an obvious connection, like radio talker Tim Conway Jr., whose famous father was a performing partner of the director’s dad, Ernie Anderson. (His stint as a horror-movie host in Cleveland, Ohio explains the name of the younger Anderson’s company, Ghoulardi Productions.) Others, like the woman who stands out in one scene as a talent agent (Harriet Sansom Harris), justify their presence through their look, voice, or personality.

I had fun watching Licorice Pizza, an all-too-rare quality that no other year-end release can match. For that I am grateful that someone wrote Paul Thomas Anderson a blank check to make such an idiosyncratic, highly personal film.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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