Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film is a love story set in 1973, and far too interesting and complicated to be called “coming-of-age”. A grinningly fast-talking 15-year-old boy meets a bored 25-year-old woman who works as assistant to a photographer taking pictures for the high-school yearbook. She is in equal parts amused, intrigued and depressed when this kid starts hitting on her, and she realises that she is somehow interested in him.
Anderson makes glorious movie stars of his two newcomers. Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is eerily assured as Gary Valentine, a heavy-set kid with iffy skin whose child-actor career in TV and movies is coming to an end, and is therefore turning his various side-hustles into the main event, running his own cockamamie company selling waterbeds. Alana Haim, of the pop band Haim, is superb as the permanently exasperated Alana Kane, a young woman with Barbra Streisand’s beauty and charisma; appropriate, perhaps, as Streisand’s notoriously quick-tempered onetime boyfriend Jon Peters is played by Bradley Cooper in a walk-on role, as one of Gary’s dissatisfied waterbed customers.
The love between Gary and Alana, if love it is, does not run smooth. Alana breaks Gary’s heart by holding hands with another child actor hardly older than he is; Gary infuriates Alana by putting the moves on a girl his own age. Alana retaliates by flirting with ageing movie star Jack Holden (Sean Penn), presumably based on William Holden (why not just make him William Holden?) and then uptight political candidate Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). But we all know, even if we can scarcely believe it, where this is heading. And this hypnotically gorgeous, funny, romantic movie freewheels its way around from scene to scene, from character to character, from set piece to set piece, with absolute mastery. You float and ripple around it as if on a waterbed. But every casual line, kiss, automobile ride, set-up and joke is a joy.