One-line review:  An impressionist painting of love in the 70s. 

What is the stamp of a PTA movie? Most films of the small group of writer-directors are easily recognizable, like Woody Allen and Tarantino’s unmistakable dialogue, and in Allen’s case, the Woodyesque leading man. Others work in similar genres like Del Toro, Tim Burton, or even the Coen Brothers, at least most of the time. But PTA’s films have no apparent similarities except excellence and surprise. How else does one explain his follow-up to the heavyweight Phantom Thread and Daniel Day-Lewis with a breezy Licorice Pizza with two rookie leads?  

The film is Alana’s (Alana Haim) coming of age story after her younger fanboy Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) upends her life. PTA’s script is genius, but the lead actors literally run with the script and bring home the gold. Alana, pretty, feisty, youngest in the family, is stuck in a rut in a boring job and unsure about her future. Enter Gary, a self-assured hustler and child actor, who proclaims Alana is the girl he will marry although he’s only fifteen and she is twenty-four. So naturally, he doesn’t expect her to show up for his dinner invite, but she does much against her wishes. Although they cannot be in a relationship because of their age differences, they become a couple for all purposes, loving, fighting, jealous, hurting each other, and yet being there for each other when no one else is. She joins his various schemes, including selling water beds, drives him around, and even chaperones him to a show.  

The film is a collage of the highs and lows of their volatile relationship, heightened with the entry of some colorful characters based on real people. Since the film looks like a collection of incidents, these cameo performances make the net effect more than a sum of its parts. For example, as Gary’s agent interviewing Alana, Harriet Sansom Harris is sensational. What made PTA decide to shoot the scene as an extreme close-up, where we see every pore of her face and every tooth (both in tip-top condition, by the way)? Her face is a smorgasbord of emotions, and just when you think you’d seen it all, it goes into some fine quivers. Bradley Cooper’s is another unforgettable cameo as producer Jon Peters and Barbara Streisand’s then-boyfriend. Cooper, bearded and dressed in white, walks the tightrope between caricature and believability. He is a crazed jerk who, at the core, is pitiable. Cooper breezes in and out of the film, leaving a big cloud of dust behind him.

Sean Penn also makes a memorable appearance as the reigning superstar, Jack Holden, who flirts with Alana, calling her Grace Kelly. Holden, a self-assured narcissistic ladies’ man, accepts friend Rex Blau’s (Tom Waits) challenge to a daredevil motorbike jump, Alana in tow. PTA is on point by referring to Penn as a star aging like fine whisky. Benny Safdie, aided by his spectacular eyes, plays closeted politician Gary Wachs deftly as a gentle idealist with a steely ambition. These older men are necessary for the plot because Alana naively latches on to each of them, hoping they will show her the path forward. But each of these men leaves her disillusioned with their self-absorption; she’s just a passing toy for them. The film ends with her realizing that Gary’s the only constant in her life and the one she should be with. 

Despite these cameos by stalwarts, we crave to see the leads alone; such is their individual charm and chemistry together. They make a case that screen presence is innate; you either have it or not, and they ooze it. Alana Haim is already a musical star, and PTA recognized her star potential when shooting videos for the Haim sisters. She plays Alana with the ferocity of a pitbull (PTA’s analogy); she is all heart in love and hate. The best thing I did was watch the movie without knowing anything about Cooper Hoffman. His charm is almost blinding in the film, and why not? He is the great Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son. Yet another argument for charm being innate. 

There are a couple of questionable choices like John Michael Higgins’s caricaturish Japanese stereotyping or Ryan Heffington as the over-the-top gay man. But, given his otherwise flawless film, I will choose the Dave Chapelle philosophy “don’t criticize something just because you don’t understand it.” PTA says ideas for this film came from the real-life stories of his friend and child actor Gary Coetzman. But the brilliant directorial choices are his, like the ferocity with which the cops take Gary away for murder. Or the magical scene that follows. Gary, suddenly free, is still fear-stricken and unable to move. Alana then coaxes him out of the police station like a puppy out of a cage. And then they run gleefully in the sun. Johnny Greenwood’s score and some well-curated 70s hits further uplift this dreamy film.   

Why watch it? To soak in the charm of the two leads.

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