The song “He Needs Me” from 1980’s Popeye — with its title phrase, artless and plangent, repeated over and over by Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl — has become something of a career-defining refrain for Paul Thomas Anderson, who made it a motif in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love and whose films, again and again, are structured around unlikely couples who complement and complete each other. In movies like his debut Hard Eight (1996), about an unlikely mentor-protégé friendship, and Boogie Nights (1997), with its multiply incestuous surrogate family forged around a porn set, differences that could be asymmetries and imbalances turn out to be gifts, given freely — of unconditional trust and romantic wildness, reciprocated with pragmatism and protectiveness. In his previous film, 2017’s Phantom Thread, the initially lopsided and potentially exploitative pairing of a famous fashion designer with a much younger waitress, a seemingly simple transaction of money and power for youth and beauty, whirls around axes of insecurity and inspiration, dependence and defiance, nurturing and kink, until it becomes impossible to tell which of the two is (to invoke the ambiguous title of another Anderson) the master.

Anderson’s latest feature, Licorice Pizza, begins with a 15-year-old boy hitting on a 25-year-old woman. It’s school picture day in 1973 in the San Fernando Valley, and she works for the photo company. Gary Valentine’s (Cooper Hoffman) chatting with Alana Kane (Alana Haim) initially has a performative aspect to it, like the way a boy, surrounded by friends, becomes brave enough to push a joke further than he would usually dare. And Gary is a performer, an actor who’s most recently been in a Yours, Mine and Ours facsimile called Under One Roof alongside a gaggle of other sly showbiz kids playing naïve moppets. So he’s good at this, insistent and light, and his attention flatters Alana, as her interest flatters him.

From Licorice Pizza

Like Adam Sandler’s character in Punch-Drunk Love, Alana’s overwhelmed to the point of erasure by her family (played by Haim’s real-life parents and sisters; the HAIM bandmates harmonize for their Shabbat prayers). But seen by Gary, she begins to perceive herself. She discovers such no-nonsense strength in holding him at arm’s length that she keeps him around, letting him take her out to dinner and then chaperoning him on a press trip to New York. His cheeky drive and proximity to achievement charms and impresses her, and puts pressure on her to stay ahead of him. She learns to be the practical one, gaining the confidence to take a do-over at her own youth and make empowering forays into acting and politics.

From Licorice Pizza

With his red Partridge Family bangs and gappy teeth, Gary’s very much a child actor, and he’s finding the adults less easy to please than they were even a couple of years before. He benefits from having in Alana someone to whom he can channel his attention-seeking and need for validation, who sees his potential more clearly than he does, even as he worries or exasperates or disappoints her. Cooper Hoffman is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (Gary’s father is absent, for reasons both he and the film remain poignantly cagey about), and when poured into flashy patterned poly-blend shirts he looks so much like his dad playing Scotty in Boogie Nights, an overgrown boy so cute that it’s getting sad. The way he settles in at “his” restaurant, Tail O’ the Cock, and orders two Cokes without asking Alana what she wants is such a great detail. You see his command and ease, his pose of businesslike masculinity wielded to the end of ordering a soda pop for want of any adult ideas.

Acting’s not forever, but Gary’s precocity soon finds other outlets. Licorice Pizza is a small-business picaresque, following his serial startups, like waterbed sales and a pinball arcade. Alana wrangles the friends and fellow actors who help out, giving a hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show slant to the already child-centric business concerns. Call it latchkey capitalism. Much of Gary’s trajectory is based on stories from producer, former child star, and teen waterbed salesman and arcade operator Gary Goetzman, and these are blended with local people and institutions from Anderson’s youth in the Valley. (Alana Haim’s mother was his art teacher in grade school.)

From Licorice Pizza

Movies can be about anything, and Anderson is the large-format American auteur who pushes that principle the furthest. Like his historical films increasingly are, Licorice Pizza is assembled with a flea-market wheeler-dealer’s eye for the repurposeable within a heap of detritus, the odd details in peripheral milieus. The film is built on the “wrong” pop culture from an oft-nostalgized era, evoking the decadent peak of postwar prosperity, a proto-yuppie paradise of synthetic fabrics and instant gratification. The vibe is “liquid luxury,” as a waterbed salesman suavely puts it, underlined in milky daytime colors and lurid nighttime highlights. It’s a world of upscale ethnic chain restaurants and bar-and-grilles with glossy brown banquettes, of feathered-hair football-shirt AM radio rock, of wood-paneled living rooms where the TV is always tuned to The Newlywed Game.

From Licorice Pizza

The 1973 oil crisis and the commensurate shock to a system made almost entirely of petroleum-based plastics is a major plot point, a harbinger of the end of this consumer Neverland. It’s a warning, just like Gary and Alana’s encounters with full adults, played by the likes of an underacting (for him) Sean Penn and an overacting (for anybody) Bradley Cooper, both cancerously tan. (Cooper portrays Jon Peters, Barbra Streisand’s hairdresser turned lover turned producer turned Hollywood-animal head of Sony Pictures.) Their braying sales-patter egotism and faith in make-believe set them as cautionary tales for Gary, swollen caricatures of the same entrepreneurial will-to-power that animates the characters played by Tom Cruise in Magnolia, Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, or Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master.

Licorice Pizza is full of goofy stoner gags, random transmutated pop culture references (Gary’s waterbed business is initially called “Soggy Bottom,” presumably for no other reason than that Anderson was watching The Great British Bake Off with Maya and the kids and found the phrase funny), and digressions into minor news cycles like the oil crisis and thumbnail sketches of people who were famous in their generation but no longer. As is often the case in Anderson’s films, but never before so warmly, all these different notes jangle against each other like charms on a bracelet, glowing baubles of memory held together by a phantom thread strung between two perfect opposites.

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Licorice Pizza is now playing in select theaters and expands nationwide December 24.

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Mark Asch

Mark Asch is the author of the New York Movies volume of the Close-ups...