Freewheeling, meticulous and glorious all at once, Paul Thomas Anderson's ninth film serves up a 70s-set coming-of-age slice of life, as topped by a transcendent performance from Alana Haim.
December 17, 2021
A Star Is Born has already graced the titles of four different films, and Licorice Pizza isn't one of them. Paul Thomas Anderson's ninth feature, and his loosest since Boogie Nights — his lightest since ever, too — does boast a memorable Bradley Cooper performance, though. That said, this 70s- and San Fernando Valley-set delight isn't quite about seeking fame, then navigating its joys and pitfalls, although child actors and Hollywood's ebbs and flows all figure into the narrative. Licorice Pizza definitely births two new on-screen talents, however, both putting in two of 2021's best performances and two of the finest-ever movie debuts. That's evident from the film's very first sublimely grainy 35-millimetre-shot moments, as Alana Haim of Haim (who PTA has directed several music videos for) and Cooper Hoffman (son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, a PTA regular) do little more than chat, stroll and charm.
The radiant Haim plays Alana Kane, a Valley dweller of 25 or 28 (her story changes) working as a photographer's assistant, which brings her to a Tarzana high school on yearbook picture day. Enter the smoothly assured Hoffman as 15-year-old Gary Valentine, who is instantly smitten and tries to wrangle a date. Alana is dismissive with a spikiness that speaks volumes about how she handles herself (a later scene, where she yells "fuck off, teenagers!" to kids in her way, is similarly revealing). But Gary keeps persisting, inviting her to the real-life Tail o' the Cock, a fine diner he claims to visit regularly. In a gliding ride of a walk-and-talk sequence that's shot like a dream, Alana says no, yet she's also still intrigued.
As a smile at the end of their first encounter betrays, Alana was always going to show up, even against her better judgement (and even as she firmly establishes that they aren't a couple). Her demeanour doesn't soften as Gary interrogates her like he's a dad greeting a daughter's beau — a gag Anderson mirrors later when Alana takes another ex-child actor, Lance (Skyler Gisondo, Santa Clarita Diet), home to meet her mother, father and two sisters (all played by the rest of the Haims, parents included) and he's questioned in the same manner. That family dinner arises after Gary enlists the new object of his affection to chaperone him on a trip to New York, where he's featuring with Lance in a live reunion for one of their flicks. Upon returning to Los Angeles, Gary is heartbroken to see Alana with Lance, but all roads keep leading her back to him anyway.
Charting Alana and Gary's friendship as it circles and swirls, and they often sprint towards each other — and chronicling everything else going on in the San Fernando Valley, where PTA himself grew up — Licorice Pizza is a shaggy slice-of-life film in multiple ways. Spinning a narrative that Anderson penned partly based on stories shared by Gary Goetzman, an ex-child talent turned frequent producer of Tom Hanks movies, it saunters along leisurely like it's just stepped out of the 70s itself, and also sports that anything-can-happen vibe that comes with youth. It's a portrait of a time, before mobile phones and the internet, when you had to either talk on a landline or meet up in person to make plans, and when just following where the day took you was the status quo. It captures a canny mix of adolescence and arrested development, too; teen exuberance springs from the always-hustling Gary, while treading water is both an apt description of Alana's connection with her would-be paramour and a state she's acutely aware of.
Set to a soundtrack that bounces between Paul McCartney and Wings, Suzi Quatro and Chris Norman, and David Bowie ('Life on Mars' is put to transcendent use), it all breezes about like a relaxed 1973 summer, but plenty fills Alana and Gary's time and PTA's glorious feature. Gary auditions for TV ads, runs a PR firm with his mum (Mary Elizabeth Ellis, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and opens a waterbed business. Alana becomes his partner in the latter, meets with his agent (Harriet Sansom Harris, Atlantic Crossing), catches the attention of a Hollywood veteran modelled on William Holden (Sean Penn, The First) and volunteers for Joel Wachs' (Benny Safdie, Pieces of a Woman) mayoral campaign. As a backdrop to the pair's exploits, Richard Nixon implores Americans to use less petrol, and as the gas crisis kicks in. And when Cooper pops up, it's as Barbra Streisand's fiery then-boyfriend Jon Peters, who isn't impressed with his waterbed delivery. Cue one of Haim's most stunning moments, driving a truck after the drop-off, where she conveys more with her face and posture than words could ever express.
As the film's two starriest vignettes make plain — plus another incident involving a not-quite-Lucille Ball (aka Lucy Doolittle, played by Search Party's Christine Ebersole) — Anderson is happy to both nod to and toy with reality. Licorice Pizza is firmly fiction, despite riffing on Goetzman's experiences, but it's also gleefully cognisant of how nostalgia for one's teenage and twenty-something adventures can feel slippery, starry-eyed and surreal. It'd make a great double with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for exactly that atmosphere, although it'd also pair well with PTA's Boogie Nights, his woozily romantic Punch-Drunk Love and his daylight noir Inherent Vice. Alas, it does also include pointless scenes with a restaurant owner (John Michael Higgins, Saved by the Bell) who speaks to his Japanese wives (New Bear Tours' Yumi Mizui and Good Girls' Megumi Anjo), plural, in a caricature of an accent — calling out what passed for acceptable in the 70s, but also landing flatly and clunkily.
Nothing else in Licorice Pizza could be described as gawky — not even Gary's posse of pals, who are rarely far from his side — or as anything less than effervescent. This marvellous coming-of-age comedy is as masterfully made as all of Anderson's work, and yet also far roomier than the likes of There Will Be Blood, The Master and Phantom Thread; as he showed with Inherent Vice, he can be meticulous and freewheeling at once. Licorice Pizza wouldn't be the film it is without either Haim or Hoffman, though, who PTA peers at devotedly, including in closeups, as frequently as he can (he's also one of the movie's two cinematographers). With Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood providing the score once again, he adores nothing more than seeing them run towards each other — figuratively and literally, blue daylight skies blazing and purple twilight hues twinkling behind them — and he makes everyone watching savour every slice.
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