© Universal Pictures International Germany GmbH

Licorice Pizza
Canada/U.S. 2021

Opening 27 Jan 2022

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writing credits: Paul Thomas Anderson
Principal actors: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, James Kelley, Bradley Cooper

Much like waking up in the new year with a prosecco-induced haze, Licorice Pizza has left me with a happy glow and warm-fuzzies, and an inability to fully explain what I just experienced. And I’m okay with it. From the opening credits until the screen goes dark more than 100 minutes later, the audience is transported into a kaleidoscopic dream state in 1973 in San Fernando Valley*.

Alana Haim makes her spectacular acting debut as Alana (Paul Thomas Anderson wrote the film specifically for her), appearing clad in a work uniform—a skort and white clickity-heels. She is noticeably annoyed and aloof as she meanders through a high school yard offering last minute touch-ups to students in advance of their dreaded yearbook pictures. A seemingly misguided young woman, Alana is indescribably endearing as she meets an equally charming and cheeky teen, Gary Valentine played by Copper Hoffman. Gary is a fast-talking, pimply-faced dough boy, who makes so many outlandish claims about being child star that he seems more like a habitual liar. He invites Alana to dinner at an adult tavern, where Gary enjoys VIP status. Soon, his unbelievable professions prove true, and Alana ends up chaperoning Gary to an ensemble appearance on a TV show in New York City. Throughout the film, Gary, who is as flighty as he is charming, bounces from one side hustle to another – one of which lands him selling waterbeds with Alana and his friends.

We witness Gary and Alana’s escapades with acting auditions, unlawful arrest, disastrous Seder dinner dates, inappropriate interactions with older adults, get-rich-quick schemes, valiant rescues, and perpetually running through the streets and neighborhoods of the Valley (the act of full-on running plays a significant role in the film). Alongside the stellar breakout performances from Haim and Hoffman, the soundtrack, costumes and set design are standouts – it’s an entire mood from start to finish! Even still, it takes a hearty portion of suspension of disbelief to allow yourself believe his relationships with the adults in his life and fall into Valentine’s sugary sweet charm and relentless determination. But you’ll most likely fall happily into step with it all.

Bradley Cooper is an enigmatic scene-stealer as John Peters, the self-proclaimed lover of Barbara Streisand and coked-up sexual maniac, as is Maya Randolph, who plays one of the regulars behind the scenes in the casting world. And all due respect is given to Sean Penn’s portrayal of Jack Holden, an alcoholic aging leading man loosely based on William Holden. Benny Safdie in the role of the promising mayoral candidate, who doesn’t live up to expectations.

The film is bittersweet eye-candy from yesteryear for anyone who remembers the1970s with its gas crisis, bellbottoms and leisure suits first-hand. Although, the script is a bit disjointed and the film rambles on at times (but admittedly I wouldn’t know which 20 minutes could be cut!), in the end, Licorice Pizza is a poignant, coming-of-age story about a boy and a woman-child who somehow end up falling in love. Licorice Pizza is that quirky, inappropriate, macramé weaving childhood friend you didn’t know you needed back in your life.

* albeit grammatically incorrect, time takes precedence over place here. (Ericka Seifried)

Second Opinion

Paul Thomas Anderson is often called the most eccentric director working today, but rarely the most sentimental. Perhaps that’s because the word is considered synonymous with schmalz and/or antithetical to art, and his films are, unquestionably, art—but they are also often wonderfully sentimental, even romantic, in the best sense of the word. Consider the ending of Boogie Nights, where the purveyors of porn are so clearly a warm, supportive family, or Punch-Drunk Love, heartfelt romance without even a hint of schmalz. And then there’s Licorice Pizza, as grand as love gets in the smallest of ways, and a beautiful achievement in every way.

Cooper Hoffman, son of the belated Anderson rep actor and muse Philip Seymour Hoffman, is Gary Valentine, a child actor aging out of the profession. Typical of the breed, he’s a charming hustler with a hint of desperation, both cocky and insecure. He sets his sights on Alana (Alana Haim), who, at 25, is 10 years older than he is, more cynical but less worldly. Also, Alana doesn’t know what to do with herself, while Gary is full of big, grand plans, many of which get surprisingly far. He throws himself into one wild business scheme after another, and Alana is along for the ride until she isn’t, and then she is again, and then…

Their relationship is both emotionally complex and non-physical. There is an amazing amount of running to each other, away from each other, physically sprinting from place to place, throughout the film. True to every Anderson project, the score is virtually a character in the movie—really, no director uses music better. Another repeat character is southern California itself, Anderson’s home turf. He grew up there in the seventies, when Licorice Pizza takes place, and the details are wonderful, from celebrity encounters—Lucille Ball in her decline, a hilariously depicted Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper)—and in the get-rich-quick schemes that Gary tackles (pinball! waterbeds!). You can practically smell the vinyl and tanning oil.

This movie is a stunning debut for both lead actors, who couldn’t feel more natural in their roles. Anderson is famous for coaxing great performances out of novices (Boogie Nights, after all, had the world briefly thinking that Mark Wahlberg was a great actor), but Hoffman and Haim could well be the real thing. Licorice Pizza definitely is. And how often is a great art film a feel-good film? That’s just one more way that this one is rare and delightful. 133 minutes. (Mason Jane Milam)

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