There’s something incredibly rewarding in seeing filmmakers who have clearly lived up to their potential continue to be themselves. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has gifted audiences a warm hug of a movie with Licorice Pizza, a coming-of-age story serving as a love letter to the San Fernando Valley during the 1970s. Born in 1971 Los Angeles, Anderson has centered many of his films in the area. His affinity for the Valley, in particular, appears everlasting. There’s nothing wrong with that either. This shaggy dog tale has all of the visual acuity of one who can make any camera choice interesting while never straying from the inherent sweetness of the oddball coupling observed in Encino.
Anderson’s not even shy when it comes to acknowledging his influences. Licorice Pizza opens with a scene ripped straight out of American Graffiti. The film then settles on two awkward kids having a long conversation that could be the start of something special à la Fast Times at Ridgemont High. From there, inside baseball talk concerning the industry abounds, but Anderson finds clever ways to observe the unique dynamic.
These two kids are Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim). The two meet on high school picture day. Gary is a 15-year-old student who prides himself on his young acting career. Alana is in her 20s, working as a photographer’s assistant. Gary’s confidence has him speaking long enough to charm Alana, though she does her best to hide a smile from him, which begins a back-and-forth of understanding how involved they want to be with each other.
There’s a sense of aimlessness to this story, which is undoubtedly what Anderson had in mind. Different ventures come and go, as we soon learn that Gary is something of a hustler, finding various angles in how to succeed. What’s his goal when starting a waterbed company or opening a pinball arcade? It doesn’t really matter. Becoming rich doesn’t seem to be a priority, but having a certain kind of status…maybe it does.
Set in 1973, specifically, the city is currently dealing with a gas crisis. Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) is beginning his first of three bids for mayor of Los Angeles. Does Licorice Pizza have much of a need to address the politics of the time? Not really. But the film’s inner logic has fun relying on the political and cultural status of the area to allow for key moments to play out and some notable cameos to take place.
Bradley Cooper shines in a brief portion of the film as hairdresser-turned-film producer Jon Peters. Late for a rendezvous with then-girlfriend Barbra Streisand, the lengths this film goes to show off Peters’ manic energy as Gary and Alana somehow enter and re-enter his orbit are hysterical. Similarly, as an actor based on William Holden, Sean Penn gets some of his own golden moments to shine during a period of one-upmanship, where Alana finds herself wanting to show off for Gary.
Regardless of how Old and New Hollywood are shaping around them, however, it is the dizzying relationship between Gary and Alana that holds this film together. None of that would be possible without the impressive work provided by both performers. As something of a double character study, these are fascinating debuts that continue to show off Anderson’s understanding of how to craft flawed characters as well.
As Gary, Hoffman gives this character a big heart and then adds a coat of smarminess just so everyone is aware he always seems to be up to something. It could come off as smug, but there’s something about this guy that attracts a wide variety of people. As I understand it, Anderson, being good friends with Philip Seymour Hoffman, has watched Cooper grow up and has shot home movies with him. That familiarity not only seems evident on-screen but builds to impressive moments where the dialogue and body language combine to the point of evoking his Oscar-winning father.
Alana is slightly more complex, and Haim similarly provides a breakout performance that hits the way it needs to. With no need to rush, the film can convey Alana’s status as someone bright enough to do something but stuck in one place as she moves through different potential suitors. As this directionless twentysomething can’t help but be pulled into Gary’s world, seeing her embrace his shenanigans and later reject them allows many sides of the character to come out, with no lack of confidence from Haim.
Even while keeping the importance of this relationship in mind, what a treat it is to have someone as talented as Anderson deliver a vivid recreation of the time period. Shooting on 35mm film and relying on specific cameras to truly deliver the feel of 70s cinema (my screening was presented in a gorgeous 70mm format), there’s no shortage of dazzling displays. Whether it’s seen during early morning strolls on the street lit by the rising sun or within interiors featuring vintage production design and costumes, there’s a natural quality that only adds to the atmosphere Anderson is going for.
Compared to many films that simply have the right kind of cars on the street and call it a day, it’s not just about having the details right. Anderson, acting as co-cinematographer with Michael Bauman, has thought out every angle utilized to ensure the best emphasis for every scene is displayed. In building so many sequences around the romantic tension between Alana and Gary, plenty of credit is also deserved for how this film can visually tilt power to one character over another in a given moment.
On top of all of this, the combination of wonderful soundtrack selections and film score cues from Jonny Greenwood allow Licorice Pizza to never stop charming the viewer. The Doors, David Bowie, Blood Sweat & Tears, and more all play a role in the unlikely romance that takes its time to develop over the course of the film’s 2+ hours. All of this while remaining a pleasant ride. Characters may argue, but the movie is too cool to ever raise its voice at the audience to underline and bold its points.
Following a psychedelic neo-noir and a work of gothic cinema that was more overtly entertaining than anyone may have expected, it’s not as though Anderson has lost a step. He’s continually found creative ways to bring about certain levels of joy in his work. Still, Licorice Pizza is one of his more inviting films. It brings hard-to-resist energy in the realm of stories featuring young love and a search for purpose in the early stages of adulthood. For that, Anderson shows why he’s a master among his contemporaries and holds onto that status with ease.