THE STORY – Alana Kane and Gary Valentine grow up, run around and fall in love in California’s San Fernando Valley in the 1970s.
THE CAST – Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper & Benny Safdie
THE TEAM – Paul Thomas Anderson (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 133 Minutes
By Zoe Rose Bryant
Few writer-directors have the brilliant “batting average” of Paul Thomas Anderson. Since his directorial debut “Hard Eight” was released 25 years ago, the man has turned out critical hit after critical hit, with every single one of his eight films except for “Hard Eight” and 2002’s “Punch-Drunk Love” receiving Oscar recognition in some respect (and some, such as “Boogie Nights” and “There Will Be Blood,” even being hailed as modern classics). As such, when a new Paul Thomas Anderson picture is announced, this isn’t an event to be taken lightly – it’s a massive occasion for the entire movie industry, and film fans wait with bated breath for years to witness the latest work of cinematic art he’s cooked up. Sometimes you get a piece of formal perfection a la “The Master” or “Phantom Thread,” in which it seems like every element is exquisitely calibrated to assure for the most flawless filmmaking possible, and other times, you receive a far looser work of long-form fiction, such as the aforementioned “Boogie Nights” or the absurdly aimless “Inherent Vice.”
His ninth feature, “Licorice Pizza,” fits in more with the latter category, but, in a way, it also carves its own perplexing – but profusely pleasurable – path, tying together a series of seemingly unrelated events similar to “Inherent Vice” yet keeping a constant thematic throughline thanks to the tremendously charming connection between our two terrific leads – an astounding Alana Haim and the charismatic Cooper Hoffman, both in their bewildering feature film debuts. As Haim and Hoffman flirt, fight, and frolic across the San Fernando Valley, it’s utterly unimaginable that anyone wouldn’t be entirely absorbed by this intimately epic ode to love and life itself, showcasing Anderson at his most playful but still powerfully poignant. And even if “Licorice Pizza” isn’t his sharpest script or story structurally, it’s undoubtedly his most overwhelmingly openhearted odyssey to date, with the film’s enormous emotion enveloping you from the first frame to the last.
The saga of Gary Valentine (Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Haim) starts at Gary’s high school picture day, where the aloof Alana, the photographer’s assistant, lurks throughline, mindlessly asking students if they need a mirror to check their appearance ahead of time. The earnest Gary, instantly entranced by this winsome older woman, tries “shooting his shot” by sharing stories about his adventures as an actor and asking her out to dinner later that evening. Alana, despite initially acting as if she’s above such an offer, indeed shows up, drawn to something about this smug but suave showman and his larger-than-life showboating. And, after the two hit it off, what follows is a tumultuous friendship (which Gary hopes will become more) that takes the two on press tours and various business pursuits, through perilous political strife, and sets them on a collision course with several prominent personalities like arrogant actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn), pompous producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), and prized politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) – all while they weave in and out of each others’ lives and find their way back to one another, time and time again.
If that sounds like a bit of a scattered synopsis for the film, that’s on purpose. “Plot,” at least in the conventional sense, isn’t the point here. This is a movie where Paul Thomas Anderson has his protagonist accidentally arrested out of the blue and let go mere moments later solely to “shake up” a scene – he doesn’t care much about adhering to a typical three-act structure or any other screenwriting “standards,” and “Licorice Pizza” is all the better for it, playing out much as life does with eccentric ebbs and flows, while always retaining a sense of fun. And for those who were alienated by the meandering anecdotes in “Inherent Vice,” you can rest assured, as no such senselessness will be found here. Rather than taking a “trippy” storytelling approach to the tale of Gary and Alana, Anderson simply embraces the strangeness of our everyday existence. He lets these sequences unfold as they may (Gary and Alana suddenly selling waterbeds across the San Fernando Valley, the two being harassed by Jon Peters as a particularly caustic client, etc.), allowing the whimsicality of the world he’s created to wash over us and allowing us to enter this environment alongside his colorful characters.
And, truth be told, it’s these characters that make “Licorice Pizza” the masterwork it is, as though the events they become entangled in are relatively extraneous, we’re always thoroughly invested because we care about Gary and Alana specifically and how they’ll scheme their way out of a situation this time – and that’s 50% due to Anderson’s endlessly compelling characterizations of the two and 50% attributable to the absolute powerhouse performances from Hoffman and Haim. To start, Anderson succeeds in making Gary both a witty wunderkind wise beyond his years and a stereotypically sloppy teenager, who sometimes lets his, ahem, more “indecent” ideas get the best of him. Still, despite possessing the attributes of every adolescent boy, there is something that sets Gary apart from others his age, and Hoffman himself also possesses that indescribable “it” factor that explains why so many are engrossed in his escapades every single time – and why Alana is so transfixed on this otherwise tacky teenager. Perhaps it’s because Hoffman has a real “everyman” enchantment, much like his late father, that makes him so relatable and riveting a lead despite his almost otherworldly way with words and consuming charisma. Nonetheless, whatever the secret is to cracking this character, Anderson and Hoffman uncovered it, making for a pitch-perfect marriage of a performer and their part.
However, for as incredible as Hoffman is, “Licorice Pizza” is Alana Haim’s announcement as a major movie star at the end of the day, and she practically runs away with the whole picture (literally!) by the film’s resounding resolution. Once again, it’s tough to separate Haim from Anderson to discover the source of her success in this role and realize how and why things went so right, but it soon becomes clear that one could not work without the other. Anderson has gifted Haim with one hell of a character here as the audacious but anxious Alana, a young woman who walks with such an assurance of her identity, projecting this idea that she has it “all figured out” (as is the case in the first scene). Still, as the film goes on, we gradually glean that, in many ways, that is absolutely not the case whatsoever. At every turn, Alana faces immense pressure to evolve and accept the responsibilities associated with growing up from both friends and family, and yet, she can’t stop running away in pursuit of something else – something more. Haim handles this state of unease and uncertainty with such straightforward sincerity, expressing Alana’s every emotion (exasperation, envy, euphoria, etc.) to its fullest extent and filling what could have been such a stale character with such explosively unique and unforgettable energy. It all amounts to one of the most daring film debuts by an actress ever seen onscreen, on par with the likes of Frances McDormand in “Blood Simple,” Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit,” and Lady Gaga in “A Star Is Born.”
There will no doubt be some who take issue with the age gap between both Haim and Hoffman and their characters, but given how innocently their interactions are depicted, it’s hard to see how they’d be worthy of the controversy they may court. Likewise, the key to their association’s effectiveness lies in Alana’s arc, as her attraction to Gary isn’t one of inappropriate or ill intent but rather an attraction to the very idea of youth as an abstract concept. And Anderson doesn’t mean to imply that Alana is “lazy” or worthlessly “lackadaisical” in her young adulthood, but rather that she’s intrigued by this idea of a return to the time when anything was possible. Every door was still open to her, instead of the limited opportunities she’s presented with today. At the same time, Gary strains to be seen as “older” and taken more seriously by his peers, an inclination that is made even more apparent in his endless business endeavors. As such, it’s their dual drive to be sensed as someone else that keeps Gary and Alana coming back to one another, continually, as they offer something to each other that no one else can – the chance to be perceived as the people they want to be instead of the people they are. And, in this wicked world, isn’t that what we all deserve?
Anderson’s direction may not be as dauntless here as it is in some of his most strictly regimented productions (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master,” etc.). Regardless, it’s no less dynamic, especially in the terrifically involving tracking shots following the early days of Gary and Alana’s dalliance or in their several sprints towards one another for an epic embrace. And even then, there are a few standout setpieces that showcase his filmmaking prowess in its purest state, such as in a scene where Alana has to guide a truck out of gas down a stupidly steep hill backward or in the film’s stirring final scene where our leading lost souls seek each other out one last time, which, paired with Jonny Greenwood’s stellar score, makes for one of those all-timer moments of movie magic that comes around once in a century. Still, it’s inarguable that it’s Anderson’s screenwriting that receives the spotlight here, with few other auteurs – if any! – able to juggle the torrent of tangents he includes in his historical reimagination here, while still never losing focus of his film’s emotional core and additionally making each screwy subplot as side-splitting as the last (with Bradley Cooper’s hilarious appearance as Jon Peters handily serving as the strongest), assuring that we’re invested by their inclusion in this compilation of Gary and Alana’s chaotic exploits. Some may find that they’re not all as amusing as others – with a brief recurring bit concerning John Michael Higgins’ racist restaurant owner speaking to his Asian wives in an exaggerated accent possibly rubbing some the wrong way, despite Anderson’s supposed attempts to spoof the character himself instead of the community – but when “Licorice Pizza” finds its stride, it never looks back.
While less beholden to real-life events than Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Licorice Pizza” still has that seductive nostalgic sheen to it, luring us to lap up the pleasures of the past and live in this setting even just for a short time. On that front, Anderson has an astonishing accomplishment on his hands. He doesn’t shy away from the pains of this time period (the oil crisis of 1973, the still pestilent societal prejudice towards “others,” etc.), but he also affectionately portrays our ability to find peace in people whom we can wholeheartedly be ourselves around – warts and all – in the hopes that, if we pull our personalities apart, they’ll be there to help us put the pieces back together again, and, hopefully, in even more fitting fashion than before. For a director most famously known for his darker fare, “Licorice Pizza” is an optimistic 180 from those films, welcoming warmth and cloaking us in the comforting idea that we too can find a bond this beautiful even when it seems as if we’ve been beaten down beyond belief, and what a reassuring remark that is after the abysmal year we’ve all endured together. But, above all else, “Licorice Pizza” is just the kind of movie that reminds you why you fell in love with the film medium in the first place – and the kind of movie that restores your faith in the medium’s future.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A pair of powerhouse performances from newcomers Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim infuse this idiosyncratic odyssey with openhearted earnestness and emotion, while Paul Thomas Anderson’s sterling script showcases the auteur at his most playful but still passionately poignant. By the end, the film represents one of the most ravishing film romances committed to celluloid.