Movie Review – Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza (2021)
Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Since I first fell in love with Magnolia, I always get very excited when a Paul Thomas Anderson film comes out. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about his work, but there is something exciting and surprising about his work. In the twenty years, Anderson has become very eclectic in his style, delivering intense historical pieces like There Will Be Blood and The Master while disappointing some fans with the loose adaptation of Inherent Vice. Licorice Pizza signals a return to Los Angeles, mainly San Fernando Valley, where Anderson made his earliest acclaimed work. I wondered if the director could return to this setting now that he’d gone in such a wildly different direction for so long.

It’s 1973. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a 15-year-old child actor who has a chance meeting with 25-year-old Alana (Alana Haim), an employee of the school photographer. Gary hits on Alan with such confidence that it sparks curiosity in her. She’s struggling to figure out her own direction in life, and this kid seems to know what he wants and is pursuing it. Alana lives at home with her conservative Jewish family, whom she feels see her as a chronic failure. She quickly becomes wrapped up in Gary’s schemes to get rich, beginning with selling waterbeds. This leads to pangs of jealousy as Alana realizes Gary’s attention to women is something he heaps on almost every woman or girl he comes across. There’s also guilt and weird feelings about being attracted to someone ten years younger than her. Through a series of episodes, Alana gets into strange situations, growing closer or further apart from Gary until she realizes her direction in life.

Licorice Pizza responds to Anderson’s last work, Phantom Thread, the story of the most toxic relationship you could imagine. Here he chooses to be gentler with his characters while exploring how most young people search so long for a partner who makes them feel more mature instead of realizing that’s only something they can do themselves. Alana is attracted to Gary because he pursues what he wants with hunger. It’s the sort of hustling mindset you see so often now as consistent pay and pensions have become a thing of the past. Gary pivots from one field to the next; he’s an actor but also has his own public relations firm (his mom is the face of it). Then he’s selling waterbed mattresses then full beds. When pinball is legalized in California, Gary immediately calls to see who he can get machines from. 

The characters never really come of age in the traditional sense, and the ending, while providing closure, doesn’t guarantee any long-term happy endings. There’s a powerful sense of Hollywood romance through the film, with our characters crossing paths with real-life figures (played by contemporary actors) like Lucille Ball and Jon Peters. Because of the period and the setting, the movie feels alive, as if anything is possible for Gary, Alana, and their friends. That never veers into the maudlin though, everything is firmly centered in genuine human emotion and experience. With each movie sequence, I was kept in a beautiful state of suspense, having no idea where the story was going but so excited to spend time with these characters and see what happened next, if they really found love or something else.

The two leading performers need a massive standing ovation here. Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, was an element I was concerned with. I worried that his casting might be more out of sadness about his father’s passing, a good friend & collaborator of P.T.’s, but those fears were unfounded. He is a fantastic actor with excellent comedic timing. Cooper convinced me of Gary’s full-throated confidence from scene one, and I’m really looking forward to seeing him in other roles to showcase his range. However, the biggest standout for me was Alana Haim. Holy shit, she is good! If you had to say who the main character of the film was, I’d say it was her, we get more time hearing about her insights than Gary’s, and ultimately that makes it her story. Haim captures that quarter-life crisis mentality so well, that bridge between callow youth and the responsibility of adulthood. You know exactly why she loves running around the Valley with Gary and his pals. But you also understand why she needs to do something meaningful, which becomes politics for her in the film’s final act. I want more Alana Haim in more movies right now. She is absolutely charming and needs to keep acting.

Licorice Pizza is also brimming with fantastic supporting players, pretty much a standard expectation from Anderson. The trailer has showcased Bradley Cooper as the infamous Jon Peters, and he does not disappoint, existing as a ball of pent-up sex perversity & aggression. Sean Penn has a brief role as Jack Holden, a pastiche of William Holden. Christine Ebersole appears as Lucille Doolittle, an obvious tribute to Lucille Ball. The film is based on stories told to Anderson by former child actor turned producer Gary Goetzman who was just as entrepreneurial as Gary in the movie, complete with selling waterbeds and opening a pinball palace when he was in high school. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the best supporting role in the movie, Harriet Sansom Harris, as real-life child talent agent Mary Grady. She nails the part, which only makes up a single scene, but you will remember her long after the movie ends.

Licorice Pizza is the sort of movie that reminds me why I love them. It’s a story that feels fresh but with just enough familiar atmosphere that I feel like I’m in a familiar place. At the core, the love story/friendship feels brutally honest at times, and no character is a villain or a hero. Alana and Gary are confused people trying to make sense of life, balancing what they want to do with what they are told. There’s a sense of freedom that they could do anything they wanted. In many ways, it’s a very American film playing in the milieu of the romantic mythology of that country. Anderson brings in elements of his last great California romance Punch-Drunk Love but also the fragmented narrative of Magnolia. This is one I’ll be delighted to revisit as I have many of Anderson’s films for years to come, a fairy tale about a very different time and place than our current one.

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