I may not adore each one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, but after Licorice Pizza, I think he’s hit home runs on five of his nine movies, with at least two more being solid doubles. He’s without a doubt a special filmmaker – Magnolia especially is an all-timer for me. But now,, four years after the release of his last movie, he’s back and more whimsical than ever with Licorice Pizza.
After being behind some of the most ambitious movies, both thematically and cinematically, of the last 20 years, PTA has decided to try his hand at what George Lucas (American Graffiti) and Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) have successfully mastered, and that’s the nostalgic high school movie. Except he’s throwing in a pinch or two of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. And even though indebted to masterpieces that have come before, this, like all of Anderson’s work, manages to feel completely unique in every way.
Make no mistake – Licorice Pizza is a comedy, and that’s an aberration from all of Anderson’s previous work. While Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, or Phantom Thread are each sometimes funny in their own way, Licorice Pizza has more mainstream appeal than any of those. It’s about a 15-year-old kid named Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a frequent collaborator of Anderson’s), who spends most of his time hustling in the San Fernando Valley in 1973. Gary meets Alana (Alana Haim), a 25-year-old who still lives at home with her parents and older sisters. This new friendship kindles something in both characters – Gary, a child actor, has a need to view himself as cooler than other people his age, and even those older than him, and Alana, who’s basically stuck in a directionless state of arrested development, wants to convince herself that she’s cooler than the people she spends time with, so she tends to stick with Gary and his friends.
Yes, there will be, and already has been plenty of age gap discourse online, but I really implore you to watch the movie for yourself, because while there is a whimsical and fun tone, it’s really not supposed to be a “boy meets girl and they live happily ever after” type of story. (And nothing is shown or even implied that will make a level-headed viewer uncomfortable, either.) The final statement on the relationship comes at the very end of the film, which I obviously won’t spoil here. Just be aware there is a sadness and sense of malaise not too deep beneath the surface. You’ll leave the theater with the high of the movie’s tone, but then you’ll be left kind of down when you think about what it’s actually saying. Even still, this will be a heavy rewatch in the future.
Most of what makes Licorice Pizza so incredibly successful is the way in which it transports you to a specific time and place without getting you caught up in the strict structure of a specific story. Again, PTA takes perfect hints from the auteurs that came before. The film is a love letter to the time and place in which he grew up, and you get the sense that many of the wacky and over-the-top vignettes that we see actually happened to Anderson or someone he knew.
Like with Boogie Nights, he exposes some of the darker parts of the moviemaking industry at the time. For instance, basically every adult male character that Gary and Alana cross paths with is a piece of crap (though, in Bradley Cooper’s case, he’s an entertaining piece of crap). Jack Holden (Sean Penn), an actor that Alana auditions for, is a predatory thrill-seeker, Jon Peters (Cooper) has an intense anger problem and a short temper, Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins) is an overtly racist restaurant owner, and Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) is running for mayor while using other people as pawns in his little games. The idea that “hey, men in positions of power are terrible!” will only start to get old when things change in the real world, and it’s actually explored with nuance and subtlety here, which is great to see.
Anderson also does a fine job of building off each one of the vignettes he presents one at a time to drive home the themes about age, maturity, love, friendship, and romantic fascinations. There’s a lot of running, and each time it’s mostly unclear what the destination is. Either that, or the destination is insignificant overall. Gary and Alana are running from one part of life to the next, trying to find themselves, but never really getting anywhere. But you’re rooting for them every step of the way, whether or not you morally agree with many of their actions. This is in a large part thanks to Hoffman and Haim, who are both first-time actors who absolutely crush their roles. Hoffman more than lives up to his name – his dad’s mannerisms, facial expressions, and acting instincts are apparent at ever turn. And Haim, a natural performer thanks to her inclusion in the band HAIM, comes across completely natural in front of the camera and among some of the biggest movie stars, both past and present.
Licorice Pizza is a truly transportive movie that feels both perfectly in line with PTA’s career and completely different at the same time. It’s soundtrack full of ‘70s hits will make you feel relaxed, much like Once Upon a Time, and its high-school-and-above-aged characters just trying to find their place in the world bring you back to a time when you felt the same, like Dazed and Confused. But you’re in good hands all the way through. In one of the absolute best movies of the year, Anderson shows you exactly what he wants to, yet you’ll still be able to get a wide variety of ideas and feelings out of it, not the least of all being satisfaction and contentment.