Licorice Pizza (2021)

Paul Thomas Anderson once again returns to the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s — however, unlike his previous film set there, Boogie Nights (1997), his latest effort, Licorice Pizza, is a gentler and hazier movie that rests its heart on its sleeve in numerous ways.

The year is 1973, and fifteen-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a child star outgrowing his appeal. He meets the twenty-five-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) at his high school photography day and immediately decides to flirt with her. Alana is too old for Gary and out of his league, but something about his confidence intrigues her, and she eventually turns up on a “date” with him. From this moment forward, the characters are inextricably linked through a complicated relationship that quite can’t be termed a romance but also can’t be discounted as one either.

Some kind of wonderful

As far as plot goes for the film, there really isn’t much of one as it is more a series of vignettes about Gary and Alana and their respective adventures. Gary is wise beyond his years but also still naïve in many ways; Alana is cynical and stuck, not knowing what she wants to do or be. Gary’s enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit captivate Alana. Of course, the appeal of Alana for Gary is obvious, he’s a teen with a crush, but he’s also in a rush to grow up. Barely attending school, he instead fills his days with new schemes to ride the wave of commercial success, including selling water beds and eventually opening a pinball parlor. Gary’s apparent certainty about his place in the world holds a vital interest for Alana, but it also frustrates her. How can this “kid” be so sure about everything when he knows nothing?

Paul Thomas Anderson has captured something magical and intangible about the early 1970s — the sense of freedom that is coupled with a sense of something darker on the horizon. He provides the audience with plenty of magic-hour shots of the protagonists running through the streets of Encino, something that would be almost unthinkable now, but he also reminds us that this is the era of the Vietnam war and massive oil shortages. Through the character of mayoral hopeful Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), we see not only the sense that corruption is commonplace but also that there isn’t a space for all people to live their truths.

Baby you can drive my car

Plenty of hat tips to Hollywood are given throughout the movie, starting with Gary’s early career but most pointedly through Bradley Cooper’s coked-up celebrity hairdresser/manager Jon Peters and Sean Penn’s Jack Holden (a merging of William Holden and Steve McQueen). Both Cooper and Penn give hilarious performances that are appropriately over the top. They are also foils for Alana’s affections — older men who Gary cannot compete with. Alana has moments when her solo star seems to be on the rise, but they are fleeting, somehow without Gary, she’s not quite at home.

It’s hard to fathom that the two leads are making their debuts here. Musician Alana Haim seems a born movie star, and Cooper Hoffman (son of Anderson’s long-time collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman) is organically perfect for his character. Anderson even manages to bring the whole Haim family to the film by including Alana’s sisters (Danielle and Este) and parents (father Moti and mother Donna) as her fictional family. Anderson has also worked with the HAIM sisters for many years as he directed most of their music film clips. There is a beauty to the casting of Hoffman and Haim; neither one has “movie star” looks, yet that everyday appeal of the characters is reinforced by the fact they are ordinary and a bit awkward. A lot of goodwill is generated by the leads by way of their everyman appeal. It also makes the romance, which is not a romance, more believable. Gary and Alana are simultaneously winners and losers. Each step on their light-hearted and sometimes implausible journey is grounded by their realness.

Pinball wizard

In many ways, Licorice Pizza (named after a vinyl record) is another cinematic love letter to a lost time, but for Anderson, it seems more personal than that. He lives in the Valley; it has been home to many of his films. The spaces he films (with co-cinematographer Michael Bauman) seem connected to him — this is his home. Some comparisons have been made to Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood (2019), but Anderson isn’t creating an epic that rewrites history; instead, he’s made a movie about love — whether that be for a place and time or an unlikely romance. There lacks a strain of self-seriousness about the film that sat in the core of Tarantino’s work. Perhaps Licorice Pizza is more about a vibe, and its fantasy is far more grounded in its excellent script, which has allowed Anderson to capture the ordinary and the outré with comparative ease.

Licorice Pizza is, in short, a blast. It’s nostalgic and heartfelt, funny, and wise. It is also a change of pace from Anderson’s impressive filmography, yet it is still recognizably his. It may be a minor key compared to some of his other works, but it’s a song that you’ll enjoy playing.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Nadine Whitney

Licorice Pizza is released through Universal Pictures Australia