Young love takes centre stage in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, and it’s led by enigmatic song and dance man Gary Valentine – for better or for worse. It’s the latest in PTA’s string of studies of weird little men, with a particularly astute focus on the melodramatic and vulnerable feeling of falling in love – Saffron Maeve takes on a trip through the San Fernando Valley to get to know him.
Paul Thomas Anderson loves hewing weird little men out of film stock: Fussy, egotistic, morose, submissive, manic, his male characters embody a specific and often self-parodying masculinity. His latest addition, a flirty and resolute teenager running around the Valley in 1973, is a continuation of his brand of hustle-men, but with a cozier, uncynical bend. Modelled on the dog days of child actor turned waterbed salesman turned pinball palace sovereign turned film producer Gary Goetzman, Licorice Pizza’s Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is an amalgam of Goetzman’s stories, Anderson’s childhood, and the slimy persistence of 15-year-old boys. Gary propels the narrative forward through his romantic tenacity, barely hanging onto its endearing schoolboy quality before it can curl into something uglier. He’s non-threatening, kind, and overwhelmingly attentive. So when he begs Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a photographer’s assistant he encounters on school picture day, to meet him for dinner, she shows up. And she keeps showing up.
Because the film caters more to Alana’s perspective, it’s easy to take Gary’s pomp and precocity at face value, and to consider him a yardstick for charting her belated growth. If anything, the film’s momentum depends on viewers falling for his hustling schtick without pausing to question it, or dismissing it altogether. We’re not invited to engage with Gary in the same way that we are Alana, but it’s that narrative distance – one well practiced by Anderson, who typically keeps the women of his films at arm’s length from the audience – which makes him even more beguiling.
By virtue of the surname and visual allusions to some of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s signature PTA players, Cooper Hoffman’s performance is plaited with nostalgia. It’s fitting for the kind of film Licorice Pizza is, but he also plays Gary with incredible empathy, imbuing him with enough quiet contemplation to offset all the mouth. When Alana asks how he became an actor, Gary doesn’t miss a beat: “I’m a showman, it’s my calling. I don’t know how to do anything else. It’s what I’m meant to do. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a song and dance man.” The words are ridiculous and Alana lets him know it; all the while Hoffman is remarkably expressive in his silence, looking less humbled than impressed that he’s managed to earn a reaction from her at all.
The discursive migraines that flared pre and post-release don’t need rehashing: he’s 15, she’s “25.” The film is glaringly aware of the age gap, especially what it says about Alana’s insecure womanhood. “Do you think it’s weird I hang out with Gary and his friends all the time?” she asks her sister Danielle at one point, to which the audience lets out an imaginary, emphatic YES. What’s lost in all the discourse is why exactly Gary might seek out Alana, beyond the obvious – she’s older than him, he likes the way she looks, she indulges his charms.
Alana piques his romantic interest at first, but she soon provides an air of authority during a decidedly unsupervised pocket of his life. Her age and presumed experience pull Gary closer to the adulthood he so clearly craves (one she still cannot manage to break into herself) while she also looks out for him. In one scene, after the police wrongfully arrest Gary for murder only to realize he’s innocent, an officer uncuffs him while a panicked Alana watches through a window. She flails about on the other side of the glass, gesturing for him to come outside. Still in shock, Gary stays seated and looks around, as if waiting to be dismissed by the bell. But nobody’s there except Alana, who eventually coaxes him out of the station and holds him in a moment of mutual reassurance.
There are moments where Alana feels like Gary’s surrogate parent: she’s his chaperone for a TV gig in New York, a responsibility they’re both exceedingly proud of; later, in an argument, she leans on the hood of his mother’s car, hurling threats to keep him from pulling out of the driveway (“Gary Valentine, don’t you dare get in that car!”). One can’t help but feel didactic absences: Gary’s father goes unmentioned while his mother travels for work, leaving him to care for his brother. His signposts for masculinity within the film are bleak, if not dangerous: absentees, predatory Hollywood bigwigs, a crass restauranteur with a penchant for casual racism. (The film’s assuredness is punctured, quite jarringly, in two scenes where John Michael Higgins apes a Japanese accent – depiction may not be endorsement, but a cheap laugh is still cheap.) Gary’s bravado is something of a mystery, then – perhaps actually spurred by the casanovas Alana jokingly compares him to.
As Lauren Wilford wrote in her review, “It doesn’t really matter what [Gary and Alana] are to one another, so long as they are something.” Age gap notwithstanding, the pair aren’t built to last – they nail the Phantom Thread codependency but never quite find their mushrooms – but they need each other, for the time being. They’re both at an impasse. Gary’s acting career is sputtering as a consequence of his age, so he tries different hustles: a waterbed business and a pinball palace, two juvenile ventures which prove successful. He’s eminently more self-motivated than Alana, possibly pushing 30 rather than riding out her mid-20s with zero notches on her belt. They both superficially covet adulthood, but more than that, they want time to slow to a crawl enough to sort themselves out. And yearning, which Gary does impossibly well, is a lot like resetting a stopwatch just before the 60-second mark.
Anderson’s Valley vignettes are finely tuned to Gary’s rhythms. One of my favourite moments in the film, in part because David Bowie needle drops are so chancy, is when Gary runs through the street, weaving between traffic while ‘Life on Mars?’ plays overtop. The OPEC oil embargo is in full swing and the good people of the Valley are low on gas, but Gary can’t drive yet so none of it matters. It’s a great articulation of how caught between childhood and adulthood he is, revelling in all the freedoms without the expensive realities. Compare that to Alana’s fervent and ironic “Fuck off, teenagers!” in an earlier scene where she sprints in search of Gary, the same ambivalence pushing her along.
With all his hair zhuzhing, smooth talking, and white suits, Gary is almost too self-assured; Hoffman described him as “the most overly confident person you’ll ever meet.” He has the impulsiveness of a teenage boy chasing white rabbit after white rabbit, and shrewd enough instincts to navigate adult spheres of business. But he struggles to be sincere – or we struggle to perceive him that way. When Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) threatens his brother and makes advances on Alana, he’s silent and painfully unable to defuse the situation. As soon as Jon leaves, Gary’s brio is back and he tells her everything he wanted to say. Like Alana, he can be hopelessly pathetic, but in the way that everyone is pathetic at 15. More than a romantic or an entrepreneur, Gary is a scared kid in a waistcoat trying to slip past the coin door and prematurely enter the game.
I’ve thought a lot about Punch-Drunk Love while writing this: frenetic, odd love stories, tetchy protagonists who have their lives upended by a crush, Mattress Men, old and young. Mostly, though, the quasi-Popeye moment where Barry Egan comes face to face with his adversary and tells him, “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.” It’s the kind of exaggerated line Gary might pull on Alana, but it’s also a great summation of what it feels like to love the wrong person at the right time: the intensity and embarrassment is packed into the words, at once melodramatic and achingly vulnerable, sincere but impermanent. Like earnestly ordering two Cokes from the bartender, or running around a city that wavers under your feet.
Saffron Maeve (@saffronmaeve) is a culture writer pursuing a BA in Cinema Studies and English at the University of Toronto. When she’s not writing, she can be found rewatching The Goonies and pestering everyone she knows to do the same.