Based on the strength of the trailer alone, I was excited for this week’s film; admittedly, it’s difficult to go wrong with a well-timed David Bowie song. Considering our picture is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and features Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman (son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) in their first starring roles, it would seem destined for classic status.
To be upfront, this is my second viewing, as I was looking forward to this so much that I watched in theaters and risked contracting Covid for it (though the risk was relatively low at the time, and theaters have been pretty [depressingly] empty of late). Was it worth all of that trouble, or at least the trouble of sitting at home in loungewear for another showing?
Paul Thomas Anderson
While experiencing the 1970s in the Valley, a former child actor hustles and schemes while falling for a stubborn woman in her mid-20s.
Alana Kane is a Grump, and she’s not having any nonsense from the greasy, unkempt teenagers roaming the halls on picture day. Working for a local photography studio that specializes in school pictures, 25-year-old Alana is extremely bored with her job, which almost entirely involves offering a mirror and comb to the teens waiting in line for a picture.
Included on the list of people Alana is very uninterested in speaking with is Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old actor and businessman who seems to be on a mission to charm the world. Impulsively asking Alana to meet him for dinner, Gary is astonished when the young woman actually shows up that evening. Unlike most other teenagers, Gary is driven, seemingly always on the lookout for his next opportunity. Along with his acting career, Gary manages a PR company, designing ad campaigns for local businesses.
Alana, eager to escape the Valley, feels stuck in a rut, destined to stay in the same dead-end job for the rest of her life. Gary senses an opportunity for both of them when he’s in need of a chaperone for a press tour as he’s underage (ay). Alana is attracted to Gary’s costar, Lance, and eventually invites him home to meet her family. Unfortunately, Lance blows his chances when he proclaims he’s an atheist in front of Alana’s observant Jewish father. (This does lead to probably my favorite exchange of the film, in which Alana’s sister advises her “You’ve got to stop fighting with everyone all the time,” and receives the realistic sibling response, “Oh, fuck OFF, Danielle!”)
Meanwhile, Gary is up to his next scheme as his charm as a child actor seems to have worn off. Since it’s 1970s Los Angeles, waterbeds are set to be all the rage. One step ahead of the trend, Gary starts up a waterbed business, eventually recruiting Alana to help with sales. This is only briefly disrupted when Gary is wrongfully arrested for murder after wearing the same shirt as the suspect.
Hijinks ensue as Alana attempts to land a breakthrough acting gig only to fall from a motorcycle in a pointless stunt gone awry, and the waterbed company makes a sale to Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend during the oil crisis. This leads to the most dramatically tense scene reversing a truck down a hill I’ve seen on film.
What is a moment of victory for Gary is a sort of turning point for Alana, who recognizes how little she has done with her life so far. Joining the political campaign for an idealistic young councilman, Alana seems poised to re-learn an essential lesson of this film: there’s always an ulterior motive involved.
3/5 Pink Panther Heads
Oh, wow. I sort of liked this the first watch through, and didn’t particularly appreciate it this time around. I had a lot less patience for the rambling, unfocused plot full of asides, and the (over)commitment to ambience & niche references. The title itself (which I had to look up as it’s never explained in the film) is another name for an LP and an homage to a ’70s-era record store in Southern California. To me, this goes well past the line from knowing nudge to extremely specific/condescending insider reference.
One of the challenges of this film is the rather vague character interactions to go along with the vague plot. There is frequent casual sexual harassment and racism, which is sort of presented as factual information rather than making commentary either way. Some of these elements (like the widely discussed scenes related to a Japanese restaurant and their anti-Asian racism) take on a supposedly comedic edge that just falls horrendously flat.
Based on the interactions between Gary and Alana as well, I don’t know if I’m supposed to like them, root for them as a couple, or feel the ever-present discomfort of knowing an adult woman is dating a teenager. The film consistently reminds us of this reality as its very setup relies on the strangeness of the Alana/Gary dynamic. Alana is an interesting character whose annoyance I appreciate, but it does indeed strike me as odd that she hangs around with teenage boys during her free time.
This brings me to Gary, who still in many ways seems the sketchier one in all of this (I KNOW). On first viewing, I was willing to give PSH’s son the benefit of the doubt with his earnest face and floppy ’70s hair. (And still no shade at all on the acting from either of our leads, who are both excellent.) However, Gary seems so much more manipulative upon closer examination, fully committed to getting the things he wants without respect for boundaries or at times integrity. This seems to be a reflection of Hollywood culture, then and now, though again presented confusingly free of commentary.
The focus is primarily on recreating a very specific youthful 1970s feel in the Valley…failing to make the specific seem universal in the process. It does succeed aesthetically, though I am baffled by the Oscar nominations (but also not because Hollywood). Who knows if PTA even gives a fuck if you like this or not, honestly.