Film

Review: Often Delightful, Sometimes Heartbreaking, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza Is One of the Year’s Best

I was too young in the early to mid-1970s to have any real appreciation or nostalgia for the era today; and I grew up on the east coast, nowhere near the San Fernando Valley setting of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Licorice Pizza. It’s an investigation into a relationship featuring two people destined to be together…just not quite yet. My point in giving you my partial bio is to explain that there is nothing inherently or personally familiar about the time period or locale depicted here. Aside from the music and maybe clothes, this is a strange new world, but it’s a world I wish I’d been a part of. Anderson’s film makes me yearn to live in this fairly recent time period, one I only missed by less than 10 years (to be clear, I was alive during the entirety of the 1970s, but I was much younger than any of the characters in Licorice Pizza).

Licorice Pizza

Image courtesy of MGM

The film tracks two very special people. First is 15-year-old Gary Valentine (newcomer Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late actor and Anderson favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman), a young, confident actor and entrepreneur who is a whiz, spotting a growing market and building a business around it (the first example we see of this is when he starts selling waterbeds). While in line for his high school yearbook photo, he meets one of the photographer’s assistants, 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim from the band Haim and also making her feature debut, although many of the band’s music videos were directed by Anderson). He’s instantly smitten with her, perhaps because of her sullen attitude, which he is determined to crack. He ends up convincing her to join him for dinner at a local bar and grill that he frequents, and they get along well enough that she decides they can be friends.

Almost immediately, the chemistry between the two is noticeable—he knows who he is and can talk himself in and out of almost any situation; she is still trying to figure out her place in the world and is somewhat weirdly inspired by Gary’s aura. When Gary needs a chaperone to accompany him to New York for a variety show appearance in connection with his latest movie role, he manages to convince Alana to go with him. Once again, their rapport is awkward but interesting. On the trip, she falls for one of Gary’s fellow (and slightly older) cast mates, and this begins a series of near misses between the pair. She gets interested in someone or something when Gary is most interested in getting into an actual relationship with her; then Gary does the same when Alana begins to take notice of him. It’s vaguely frustrating but also gives the two excuses to spend more time together, which is all we really want.

Like so many of Anderson’s films (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread), the joy of Licorice Pizza is in the details—the music choices, the period production design and costumes, and most significantly, Gary’s life on the outskirts of Hollywood. From his vantage point, he bumps into the rich and famous just enough to see some of himself in them but not actually fit in comfortably. The film role we hear about early on stars an aging comedic actress who is clearly meant to be Lucille Ball (code named Lucy Doolittle and played by Christine Ebersole); later in the film, Alana interviews with Gary’s agent (the wonderfully bizarre Harriet Sansom Harris), who sends her to an audition with alcoholic actor Jack Holden (in a rare comedic turn by Sean Penn, doing William Holden), and the two get mixed up in a dangerous motorcycle stunt after being egged on by a rabble-rousing director (Tom Waits, doing Sam Peckinpah). Time and again, Gary and Alana keep bumping into the life they think they want before they turn back to each other for a reality check.

The film’s ultimate example of this is the brilliant set piece involving Gary and Alana delivering a waterbed to Hollywood producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper, playing the real-life womanizer who inspired Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo), who also happened to be Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend at the time. In the brief time he spends with the delivery team, he hits on Alana, threatens to murder Gary, and just generally rages through the sequence like a psychotic, coked-up sex fiend. He’s delightful, and the scene plays like a comic, destructive nightmare that also manages to wedge in commentary about the decade’s energy crisis. Miss it at your own peril.

Licorice Pizza’s greatest magic trick is that it actually transitions from being a coming-of-age story about Gary to one about Alana, and you almost don’t see it happen. Gary is trying on identities, sometimes to impress Alana and sometimes just because he’s young enough that he doesn’t have to commit to his personality just yet. But Alana feels left behind by her peers and family members. We see her at home with her older sisters (played by her real-life sisters and the other members of Haim) and parents (played by the Haim sisters’ real parents), feeling singled out by her family for not having figured herself out yet. She seems most herself and at peace with Gary, but the age difference will always be an issue for her. When it seems Gary is especially unavailable, she throws herself into, of all things, politics by becoming a volunteer for a local politician (filmmaker/actor Benny Safdie), whose policies she strongly endorses. As a result, she spends a lot of time with other adults, and it gives her a sense of purpose. That is, until the politician requires her help with a sneaky photographer looking to get dirt on him, leading to one of the film’s finest emotional moments, one that reminds Alana that Gary is many strange things, but a liar isn’t one of them.

In the grand scheme of Anderson’s movies, Licorice Pizza may have the lowest stakes. But that doesn’t stop the character’s lives and choices and conflicts from feeling massive. The biggest flaws in the film are the moments when the comedy feels forced, no more so than John Michael Higgins’ portrayal of a restaurant owner whose obsession with marrying Japanese women leads him to “translate” for them in a generic and offensive Asian accent, made all the worse by the fact that he doesn’t speak any Japanese. I understand the character is openly mocking men with racist fetishes, and that’s not what bothers me about the character; it’s the way the scenes with Higgins turn this fairly sophisticated observational work into something broad and trashy. It simply doesn’t work, in addition to being offensive.

Licorice Pizza becomes a series of small and important epiphanies for both characters. Some of these realizations are about each other and some are about themselves and the world they live in. Sometimes very funny, other times heartbreaking, the film isn’t about a time or place I know; it’s not about experiences I came remotely close to having when I was growing up. But Anderson gently put me in the shoes of these characters and gave me that rare gift of seeing the world as they do. That’s what the movies are to me. I identify with these people because the filmmaker and actor give me enough detail to become them briefly, and that’s the perfection I seek every day from the movies. I already miss these characters and want to know where they go once this part of their story is over, which is why I’m going to go back again and again (I’ve already seen it twice) to watch what may very well be my favorite film of the year.

The film opens December 24 at select theaters, including at the Music Box Theatre, where it will screen in 70mm.

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