One indelible scene: When a woman takes the wheel in 'Licorice Pizza'
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One indelible scene: When a woman takes the wheel in 'Licorice Pizza'
After letting Alana Haim and her character drift and idle, Paul Thomas Anderson gives you a reason to cheer: “Hardcore, hardcore Alana!” Josefina Santos/The New York Times.

by Manohla Dargis

NEW YORK, NY.- In the final stretch of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” rocker-turned-film-goddess Alana Haim climbs into the driver’s seat of a truck and takes off with the movie. Her character — a rootless adult also named Alana — has been meandering through the story, which takes place in 1973. For reasons known only to Anderson, Alana has been hanging out with Gary (Cooper Hoffman), an operator, recently turned 16, whose latest hustle is selling water beds. They need to deliver a bed to a customer, but since Gary isn’t yet driving, Alana is the one behind the wheel.

Specifically, Alana is operating a Ford truck, a hulking six-wheeler with the front painted an incongruously sporty orange and blue. It’s a featured player in my favorite sequence, a nine-minute stop-and-go, jaw-clenching spree that emblematizes both the movie’s hairpin narrative arc and Alana and Gary’s sometimes rushed, at times stalled-out relationship. It is a wonderful showcase for Alana (and Haim), whose handling of the truck reveals a new facet about a character who not long ago had ingloriously fallen off the back of a motorcycle.

The truck sequence is roughly divided into three movements. The first begins with Alana starting the engine as she and Gary drive away from the home of Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), the customer and the most floridly obnoxious of the Hollywood types populating the story. A celebrity hairdresser, Jon is a confusion of signifiers in dark shoes, white pants and a white bohemian-style shirt that frames his chest fuzz and necklace. And he’s dating Barbra Streisand, whom he’s seeing that night. (He’s also spinning like a top and doesn’t seem high just on her.) Film fans know that the real starry couple kept dating and that a few years later, Peters produced the 1976 version of “A Star Is Born” with Streisand as its headliner.

Gary and Alana have gone to the house to install a water bed. Jon soon splits for his date, roaring off in his Ferrari convertible. First, though, he threatens to kill Gary and his family, including his brother, if they mess up his house. This warning doesn’t sit well with Gary, so he and Alana deliberately let the water spill out and quickly leave. There’s a shot of the truck lumbering away and then a cut to inside the rear of the vehicle, where Gary’s brother and two other boys are joking amid boxes of uninflated water beds. The three are Gary’s sidekicks, a roving peanut gallery, and the shot of them is a reminder of the truck’s tender cargo.

Alana and Gary’s getaway is soon interrupted by the sight of Jon rapidly cresting a hill and walking toward the now-stopped truck in a beautiful, harmoniously balanced shot that inaugurates the scene’s second movement. The truck, its taillights shining like bloodshot eyes, is perched on the right side of the screen while green foliage edges the left. In the distance, the dark cerulean sky and silhouetted mountains spread out across the top of the frame. Jon strides into the center of the shot, a street lamp pointing down on him like a spotlight, his white shirt softly glowing. Jon is a star, baby, and he knows how to make an entrance.

He has also run out of gas. So, he jumps in the cab next to Gary (“Scooch over!”) and orders them back up the hill. At the house, Jon jumps out and, without breaking stride, yells at his assistant (as they do in Hollywood) before marching into his brightly lit garage, where the film takes a sly detour into the meta. For the next couple of beats, he pitches a fit as he looks for a gas can, giving you time to check out the motorcycle in the garage. There were two in the garage where Cooper’s character commits suicide in the 2018 version of “A Star Is Born” that he directed — it’s the same role that Kris Kristofferson had opposite Streisand in the 1976 film.

Once Jon has the gas can, he returns to the truck, where — no doubt inflamed by images of a waiting Streisand — he flirts with Alana. First, he quizzes Gary and Alana about their relationship. “We’re not together,” each says in fast succession. Jon asks why not. Gary says he doesn’t know, but after a pause, Alana says “I’m 28,” only to rapidly change her age to “25.” It’s a funny, strange moment, partly because the film coyly dances around the age difference between Gary and Alana, which it couldn’t do if their sexes were reversed. Jon keeps after Alana, at one point leaning over Gary to help her steer. “Oh, yeah, smooth, smooth,” Jon murmurs, his face inches from hers. It’s the closest thing to sex that she’ll have in the film.

Alana and Greg take Jon to a nearby gas station, where the sounds of the song “Indian Reservation” fill the air. That may explain why Jon, still hyped up, yells out “Chumash territory!” as he makes for a pump, tossing the gas can at a startled customer. (I suspect that Anderson is also having fun: Peters is part Cherokee.) Back in the truck, Gary tells Alana to go: “Reverse, reverse, reverse.” Freed of their weird interloper, they laugh and smile, and drive back to Jon’s waiting Ferrari. They stop, Gary gets out and proceeds to vandalize the car, smashing its windows. Anderson uses close-ups strategically, so it’s instructive when he deploys them, which he does here, pushing in on Gary’s smiling face until it fills the frame.

Like so many of Gary’s triumphs, this one is short-lived. The truck shudders and dies, and Alana, looking at the gauge, realizes they’re out of gas. One of the story’s backdrop details is the 1973 oil crisis, which proves disastrous for Gary and Alana’s venture. Water beds are made of petroleum-based vinyl; more urgently, they need to move merch. That night, they also need to move. And so, after ordering Gary to get out and push, Alana — initially in reverse, like a trucker Ginger Rogers — steers this behemoth into the final movement, brilliantly coasting it down a series of inky, curvy, at times steeply graded streets. It’s glorious.

Sometimes, the journey really is the destination, whether the characters are speeding or crashing. In the “Fast and Furious” series, driving is an existential truth: “Life’s simple,” one of its poets says in “Tokyo Drift.” “You make choices and you don’t look back.” You just go, which Alana grasps as she sits behind the wheel. She needs to make choices. She and Gary are stranded that night. But they’re stuck in other ways, too, and their troubles that evening read like a metaphor for their relationship. Jon’s flirtation with her is a reminder, including to Gary, that other men find her desirable; her handling of the truck shows just what she can do.

Until the truck sequence, Alana never makes sense as a character even at her most winning. She is an adult in a teen movie, and her only real romantic prospect is a kid who’s supremely and legally unsuitable. Yet she keeps hanging out with Gary, drifting and idling. Together, they rack up a lot of miles — Alana enters the film in mid-stride — and one of the crucial visual motifs in “Licorice Pizza” is of them running: alone, side by side or toward each other. Yet where are they going? Now, though, as she steers the coasting truck into the Los Angeles night, taking one terrifying turn after another, her face focused and hands sure, Alana gives you an answer. She is exactly where she needs to be, in command and in control, with a suitably awed Gary at her side. And she’s taking him, you and this film straight to the finish.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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