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‘Licorice Pizza’ Might Finally Win Paul Thomas Anderson an Oscar

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How to describe Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscars track record? Over the past two-plus decades, he’s become one of the most reliably nominated filmmakers of the period, if still consistently kept at arm’s length by the Academy. He entered 2017 with six nods to his name, and yet it was something of a surprise when his eleventh hour contending film from that year, the critically adored Phantom Thread, was cited for both best picture and best director. He’s revered in this town, no doubt. But the Oscars sure make him work for it.

At this stage, eight-time-nominee Anderson is clearly overdue for his first Oscar. And I believe, as he enters another season with a late-breaking contender, that Licorice Pizza could be the movie that gets him a win.

Anderson has a clear lane, particularly, in the original-screenplay category. The writing branch has gravitated toward his work more than any other, with four of his eight noms coming for his scripts, both original and adapted. The comic-romantic, ’70s-set Licorice Pizza feels tailor-made for a category that’s honored the likes of Her, Birdman, and Promising Young Woman of late. And its competition so far is headed up by broader front-runners like Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard (written by Zach Baylin), which don’t chiefly pop for their scripts. (Remember, top champ Nomadland lost in writing just this year.) 

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Of Anderson’s oeuvre, the film recalls Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice in its vivid recreation of a particular time and place in Los Angeles, featuring the former’s show-business-y Easter eggs and the latter’s vignette structure. (Both screenplays were Oscar-nominated.) Of course, Licorice Pizza is entirely its own thing too, as it follows the budding connection between 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and teenager Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a PTA regular) as they come of age in the San Fernando Valley. (Gary’s side of the story is loosely inspired by the life of producer Gary Goetzman.) The characters’ easy, specific rapport proves immediately winning, and gives the loose narrative a firm spine as they fall in and out of each other’s lives, and face a series of characters ranging from the ridiculous to the dangerous to, sometimes, both.

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Yet where the film really sings—and where I think you’ll find its true Oscar potential—is in how heartfelt it is. Anderson has never been averse to showing a softer side, exactly, but this is a very funny comedy that doubles as the sweetest movie he’s ever made. Whether in the sheer brutality of There Will Be Blood or the shaggy coolness of Inherent Vice, Anderson’s work often projects a—successful!—distance. Here he presents people to fall in love with, and warmly follows them navigating a wild world.

I expect the Academy to respond to that, even as this also means the movie’s relatively low stakes could translate to more challenging campaigns in picture and director, where more outwardly weightier work is usually favored. (And yes, the screenplay categories are quite predictive of the best-picture winner, but again, there are exceptions.) In any case, the screenplay is the obvious play, and there’s plenty of potential below the line. Jonny Greenwood’s score contributions take a back seat to the transporting soundtrack (poor guy probably only has two other movies to compete with, in Spencer and The Power of the Dog), but the craft otherwise is expectedly precise and gorgeous. 

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