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I still think Paul Thomas Anderson peaked with Magnolia (1999), but everything afterward sparks the same anticipation we give Quentin Tarantino films. We’re curious because these movies behave like postmodern disobediences to the greats (Scorsese, Lumet, Leone, Altman), but they can’t help but be influenced by them either. In a way, they simply meander.
From extremely personal reminiscences to MacGuffins and randomness, PTA’s post-Magnolia films intrigue us while also not saying a whole lot (There Will Be Blood: Daniel Day-Lewis’s character is very greedy and evil; The Master: Cults are scary and monotonous; Inherent Vice: Neo-noirs can disappoint; Phantom Thread: A muse is a beautiful thing). If they say anything, they speak more to their creator than the audience, but at least they are more original in premise and atmosphere than most movies out there.
Comparisons to Cameron Crowe conceptions, Harold and Maude (1971), or anything Richard Linklater are unfair. Licorice Pizza distinguishes itself in a dreaminess only PTA knows best. You can’t help but think people really don’t talk this way (in the 70s, nor today), the San Fernando Valley is viewed through a literal and emblematic rose-colored lens, and its controversial premise – a 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old woman fall for each other – is inappropriate and yet simultaneously fitting in an atmosphere only captured in a (boy’s) dream (or, a Paul Thomas Anderson film).
Really, like Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, this is an all-encompassing PT Anderson pet project – inside jokes, two meaningless diversions (the Bradley Cooper and Harriet Sansom scenes), inapposite (and racist) inclusions, and all. PT might have enjoyed his trip meandering down memory lane, but the audience is left behind after 90 minutes.
I wanted so badly for this to be in my Top Ten of 2021, but it left a bad aftertaste.