Then Playing — The King of Staten Island; The Way We Were; Licorice Pizza

The King of Staten Island (Judd Apatow, 2020). This film represents a new nadir for director Judd Apatow’s exhausting tendency to develop a container ship’s worth of individual scenes with only the vaguest concern of how they might fit together into a narrative. Drawing from his own experiences, Pete Davidson plays a Staten Island twenty-something who’s still distraught over the death of his firefighter father and is generally slumping through a directionless life marked by physical and mental health issues. Despite a grounding in some of the more challenging topics Apatow has every explored in film, The King of Staten Island is as lost as its protagonist, gliding from one conflict to another with no real sense of growth, change, or impact until everything is just different because the strictures of narrative demand it. Worse — and wholly typical for Apatow — the painfully overlong film is filled with scenes that don’t work and contribute nothing, such as those centered on a restaurant’s fight club approach to dispersing tips at the end of the night. It briefly seems as though Marisa Tomei will at least bring a little spark with some crafty character work as the lead character’s mother, but even she seems to give up and start coasting by the end, as if she is worn out by the whole endeavor. If so, she’s not alone.

The Way We Were (Sydney Pollack, 1973). Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford are cast to type as, respectively, a headstrong activist whose initial abrasiveness is quickly overpowered by her irresistible charisma and a golden boy who routinely arrives at triumphs with ease and yet feels lurking discontent about it all. The movie-star command both actors bring to their roles elevates the relatively straightforward romance plot, as does the introduction of prickly subplots about radical politics, McCarthyism, and the erosion of artistic integrity in Hollywood. In addition to the expected, but affecting, march through wistful, teary relationship shifts, The Way We Were generates emotional heft by considering the gradual but steady compromise of all the aspirations and proud definitions of self that exist in youth. Sydney Pollack directs with a steady hand, and Patrick O’Neal contributes an amusing supporting performance as a movie director clearly modeled on John Huston.

Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2021). Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest deliberately shaggy tale of youthful life in the San Fernando Valley in the early nineteen-seventies. It’s charming and agreeably ramshackle, enlivened by guileless lead performances by Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. The frizzy, episodic structure also makes the missteps more glaring, because it would have been so easy to excise the material that doesn’t work. Anderson can shrug off the complaints about John Michael Higgins’s character occasionally speaking in a stereotypical cadence and accent reminiscent of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s as “an idiot saying stupid shit,” but those few scenes are poisonous to the film’s otherwise amiable vibe. As usual, Anderson’s cinematic technique is impeccable, evoking a time and place in way that is thorough and convincing without becoming ostentatious in its trappings. And the film’s best set pieces, such as the justly lauded scene involving an out-of-gas moving truck and a steep hill, are master classes in narrative storytelling. Licorice Pizza isn’t one of Anderson’s more ambitious films, but it might in the upper echelon in terms of pure entertainment value.

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