Licorice Pizza, 2021.
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Maya Rudolph, John C. Reilly, Christine Ebersole, Skyler Gisondo, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Harriet Sansom Harris, Este Haim, Danielle Haim, Emma Dumont, Joseph Cross, Emily Althaus, John Michael Higgins, Ray Chase, George DiCaprio, Sasha Spielberg, and Isabelle Kusman.
The story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973.
Not only does supremely talented writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson place his latest film, the idiosyncratically titled Licorice Pizza (it’s the name of an actual record store that once existed), on the backs of acting newcomers Cooper Hoffman (son of the late great PTA collaborator, Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Haim (most known for the band of her surname, with PTA having helmed some of their music videos), he makes you fall in love with them from the opening dialogue exchange.
That’s also a tall task considering the impressive unbroken shot that seemingly goes on for minutes (courtesy of cinematographer Michael Bauman, sharing a credit with Paul Thomas Anderson) involves Cooper Hoffman’s hustling teenage actor Gary Valentine (based on a child actor that went on to become a producer for Tom Hanks) flirting with high school yearbook photography assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim), desperate to convince the 25-year-old woman to meet him for a dinner date later that night. Easily the most miraculous aspect of Licorice Pizza is that, while there are clearly barriers involving age and the law, not to mention morality, throughout the 2+ hours that push and pull these characters together and apart, there’s a strong urge to hope they end up together in some fashion that walks the line between platonic and romantic.
Without question, Gary is a horndog, but as a child actor with fading star power, such emotional immaturity is offset by his confidence and status running businesses. It’s not exactly hard to see why a successful actor growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s would crave and chase a relationship with someone older. There is something to prove intellectually and emotionally through a perceived sense of accelerated maturity from this privileged and spoiled lifestyle. Naturally, Alana initially laughs the proposal off, but brief glimpses of her home life reveal something depressing and annoying. Her life is not necessarily abusive but rather remarkably unfulfilling. As a result, she surprises Gary by coming out for dinner.
From here, their friendship and dynamic continuously grow without any distinct classification. However, it’s clear they are falling for one another throughout every sequence of hilarious shenanigans that serves to either bring them closer or remind these two characters of the obvious; he’s too young, and she needs to get her life together. As Alana falls into Gary’s entire rebellious group of friends, this mismatching is visually realized as she observes the boys making crude sexual gestures with the gasoline canisters. The facial expressions and body language from Alana Haim are incredible throughout, and this is one of the most prime examples. It’s a moment of heavy questioning and soul-searching settling in of “what in the actual fuck am I doing with my life.” Political discussions also further illuminate that maturity chasm.
Licorice Pizza also has a breezy freewheeling approach to its storytelling that also allows for sincere bonding and genuine connection between the two, most notably when Alana starts working for Gary selling waterbeds together (which were bursting onto the market). Across their many misadventures (whether it’s from police misunderstandings or encounters with the psychopathic partner of Barbra Streisand, Jon Peters, as played by Bradley Cooper leaning into every second of every unhinged line delivery), there are darker skirmishes that bring out protective reactions from one another. It’s no surprise that Alana shuts down the idea of a relationship from the beginning, which makes it all the more compelling when she is conflicted and jealous, catching a peek of Cooper giving it a go making out with someone his own age. In itself, that act is retaliation for Alana trying to date one of his former co-stars.
If there’s any gravitational pull toward wanting to see these characters together in some respect, it comes from the dangers of show business surrounding Alana. There is a subplot involving an egocentric filmmaker played by Sean Penn, who, as socially unacceptable as this sounds considering it would be the legal option of the two scenarios, would be a far worse relationship choice. With that in mind, there is a balancing act to Gary’s character, driven by hormones yet simultaneously developing real feelings for Alana in a world where just about every adult male within her vicinity turns out to be a disappointment. Still, Gary is in no position to be a serious partner, often putting up a front boasting about things he would do to those coming onto Alana but sinking in silence when those confrontations arise. Even as a boss, he sometimes struggles to command any leadership or adulthood unless his orders are directed at children.
Licorice Pizza is effortlessly charming and joyously lighthearted despite what sounds like heavy and taboo subject material, all while extraordinarily lit and photographed. The cinematography utilizes reflections, colorful wardrobes, sunny locales, a one-off song and dance number, and lively indoor spots such as a pinball arcade venue. There are one or two plot conveniences here and there, but it hardly matters. Licorice Pizza is a complex study of a difficult dynamic duo tough to label navigating a tricky time and subculture. It is challenging as it is effervescently winning. Alana Haim stuns in a slightly more layered part, given a tad more focus, and Philip Seymour Hoffman would be proud of Cooper Hoffman’s astonishing debut turn.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com