By John H. Foote
Now streaming on Prime / Available soon on Blu Ray
The first time I screened this film I liked it very much, but it did not knock me out as most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films tend to do. The second time, it blew me out of the room. Was I tired the first time? Maybe because this is a superb film with star making performance from its leads, and stunning supporting work from Hollywood giants. Names have been changed, gently altered, William Holden becomes Jack, Lucille Ball become Lucy Doolittle, Sean Penn exudes Hollywood charisma as Jack Holden auditioning for young girls to play opposite him in Breezy (1971) perhaps, though the film seems set later in the seventies.
From beginning to end you will be smiling, though there is an undercurrent of danger sometimes that caught me off guard.
But everything works, absolutely every single second of the film works and beautifully.
Whoever thought that Anderson, whose previous films were so dark and explored the underbelly of humanity, would make a screwball comedy so filled with sunny moments and joy? A huge reason the film works is the casting, simply perfect, which is never simple.
As Alana, the 25-year-old who meets Gary Valentine and becomes his friend, knowing he loves her, Alana Haim is a revelation. One third of the rising and talented girls rock band Haim, she is a born movie star, born to be an actress, blessed with naturalism and pure charisma as an actress and does so effortlessly. Let me be clear, I have not seen this degree pf pure talent since Sean Penn debuted back in the eighties. A star has been born with this film and performance, and she is kind of doing a high wire act here because it could go wrong so easily. Consider that she is portraying a 25-year-old woman hanging out with an obviously smitten 15-year-old, which is no crime considering their deep friendship is chaste, yet could easily become sexual as the plot evolves. It is believable because her character, Alana, is immature and not yet developed as an adult, and Gary, beautifully portrayed by Cooper Hoffman, son of revered actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, brings confidence and knowing to his child actor Gary Valentine, always hustling the newest thing. When waterbeds sweep the nation he creates a waterbed business, and when pinball machines are legalized in California for the first time since 1939, he buys a bunch and opens a pinball arcade. The kid is smart, with an adult intellect, swagger and confidence to burn, the only complication in his life being the live he feels for Alana and the knowledge it cannot be returned.
Legally I get it, she is an adult, he is a child, but in their minds that is exchanged. I remember being head over heels for my fifth grade teacher, a beautiful, funny and intelligent woman who was just out of teachers’ college at 19 and only seven years older than her students. In 10 years the age difference would not matter, but it sure did then.
The romance is complicated but often sunny and fun, both painfully aware of what they feel for each other just as they are it cannot be acted upon. No question they are soul mates, feeling intense jealousy seeing the other with a date, and when not together wondering where the other is or who they are with.
Gary opens new worlds for Alana, getting her auditioning for movies and TV shows, going into business with her, just being with her. He is smitten with her the moment he sees her lining up for his high school photograph and she is working for the photographer. She is shocked at his confidence, his chutzpah, he is just not like other kids. He asks her out and I am not sure who is more surprised when she shows up at the restaurant, her or him? Their banter reminds me of that of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, spiced up some, but just as quick and smart. I have not seen a screwball comedy for a long, long time, especially a truly great one like this.
Set in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood inevitably touches their world, William Holden renamed Jack Holden (Sean Penn) for the film and played with absolute charm (truly) by Sean Penn. Alana reads scenes with him and then accompanies him to the restaurant Gary frequents, allowing herself to be seduced by the older man’s charm and worldliness. Lucille Ball (Christine Ebersole) is Lucy Doolittle here, doing press for her film Yours. Mind and Ours, in which Gary appeared, and in a ferocious performance that leaps off the screen with its ferocity is Bradley Cooper as famous hairdresser Jon Peters who was initially famous as Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend, which he makes sure EVERYONE knows. Hyperactive, potentially violent and with a threatening presence, even his walk is aggressive, Cooper gives the film a jolt of electricity that is glorious to see from an actor. In maybe 10 minutes of screen time, Cooper very nearly steals the film and was certainly deserving of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His bright blue eyes blaze with madness and, try as we might, we cannot take our eyes off the man.
Alana and Gary dance around the complications of their relationship not knowing what is so obvious to us throughout the movie. Will they ever figure out that they adore one other and age be damned??
Haim is an absolute revelation in the film, there might not be enough adjectives to describe her performance. There was talk of her getting nominated for an Academy Award but sadly it did not happen in a year log jammed with Best Actress candidates, but she should have been there. Haim gives a luminous, funny, intense and often deeply focused performance of a young woman evolving before our eyes through her relationships and growth as a young woman. You can feel the changes in her, see them as they happen, and it astonishing to witness.
Young Hoffman is not yet the actor his father was (who is?), but the genes are there and the talent. He portrays Gary as a hustler, always on the make to find a scheme to make money, more money. As Gary he gives a broad, exuberant performance as a teen older than his years who knows what he has to do to keep attention on himself, be it auditioning, grabbing attention onstage, or hustling the latest thing to make money. The moment he hears about pinball machines being made legal again he is on the phone (and I am talking seconds) to find machines to create a pinball arcade. His focus on whatever interests him is alarmingly intense, and Alana interests him most of all. Love at first sight? Absolutely, but he knows in the beginning at least she does not share that emotion, just as he knows she might one day. We feel his pain when he sees her with other men, because he longs to be with her with a longing that breaks our hearts. He and Haim have a lovely chemistry, each possessed with superb comedic delivery, and they know just how long to let the silences go. I hope they make more films together; they are a joy to watch.
The co-stars are each outstanding beginning with Christine Ebersole’s Lucy Doolittle, meant to be Lucille Ball. Kind, funny even teasing backstage, when young Gary bops her head during the musical number they do on TV to promote her film, her fury is unleashed backstage, and she has to be restrained from getting at him. Child or not, he took her moment and she will not have it. Though her scenes are too few, she is wonderful.
Sean Penn’s confident and, get this, charming, Jack Holden seems to me to be exactly the man William Holden was off the screen. He is not a womanizer, though his flirting with Alana could go somewhere but he is not seeking anything from her. Like most men who meet her, she fascinates him, and he enjoys her company!
Bradley Cooper is electrifying as Jon Peters, now known in Hollywood as a producer of many films and behind the scenes a bully and horror show of a human being. Everything about him seems filled with testosterone, and in huge amounts, he even walks with aggression. As portrayed, brilliantly by Cooper, Peters seems in a constant state of fury. It is a profound exciting performance from a man who has become one of the finest actors of his generation and was deserving of a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The entire Haim clan is cast in the film as Alana’s family, two sisters and her parents, giving their scenes a warm, lived-in feeling.
Another masterpiece from Paul Thomas Anderson, though the lightest and funniest film he has yet made. When it ended, and it ends perfectly, I would have sat for another two hours to see where the relationship went. Looking at the dark screen I was thinking “What now?”
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.