Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is one of those films that has divided both professional critics and everyday moviegoers alike. There are a few reasons for this: it comes from a writer-director whose back catalogue is both much-loved and critically lauded, from Boogie Nights to There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice to Phantom Thread, so expectations naturally run high; it has the dual star pull of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper Hoffman and singer Alana Haim in the leading roles, plus a generous smattering of other famous faces. There’s also a controversial-for-some age gap between the romantic leads, and it includes some jokes that many have seen, at best, as unnecessary and, at worst, racist.
In brief, it’s a coming-of-age drama set in 1970s LA that follows the tumultuous relationship between geeky 15-year-old child actor Gary Valentine and the effortlessly cool and unselfconsciously sexy 25-year-old, Alana Kane, whom he has the temerity to ask out while she is working as a photographer’s assistant at his school one day. Dismissive, yet also intrigued by her audacious suitor, Alana agrees to dinner with Gary and thus ensues a raft of escapades at the behest of the most unlikely of allyships.
The film sits firmly in Anderson’s wheelhouse in terms of its being more an experience than purely a piece of entertainment, capturing offbeat, flawed characters, and powerfully recreating a sense of time and place in its impeccable costuming and bold visual design. Both Hoffman and Haim are extraordinary in their respective roles: Hoffman is more than just the spit of his late father but also uncannily channels his mannerisms and magnetic, if less than classically handsome, screen presence as Gary, while Haim is enthralling and authentic as the searching-for-herself Alana.
The joy of the movie is in its many original set pieces, quirky moments and brilliant cameos. Bradley Cooper’s appearance as Barbra Streisand’s notoriously ill-tempered other half, who is yet another unfortunate customer of Gary and Alana’s ailing waterbed business, takes the audience down an unexpected road, quite literally. Also exquisitely put together is a scene in which Sean Penn (as a full-of-himself actor) hilariously tries to perform a stunt on a motorbike while substantially inebriated. Benny Safdie (one half of the sibling directing team behind the genius Uncut Gems and Robert Pattinson-reinvention film Good Times) also graces the screen as an aspiring politician desperate to keep his personal life away from prying media eyes. The involvement of Haim’s real-life sisters and bandmates and her real parents is yet another wonderfully placed element.
At times, however, it feels like the narrative arc is missing something, the sum of the film’s parts less than its whole; the wholehearted investment in the detail of individual scenes and the wit of the pitter-patter dialogue leaves something lacking in the story’s forward propulsion, creating a feeling of disjointedness. The Asian jokes are as jarring as many warned, and hard to bat away as simply reflective of 70s societal norms, and the age gap is unavoidably awkward at some junctures, where the fascination seems to solely lie in Alana’s enjoyment of being the object of infatuation rather than genuine requited love.
But, as the saying goes, it’s about the journey, not the destination, which would seem an appropriate philosophy with which to approach Licorice Pizza: embrace its freewheeling spirit, immerse yourself in the recreation of the boozy, rebellious era, allow yourself to feel young and carefree and you’ll have a wonderful jaunt through San Fernando Valley with Gary and Alana. Those who ask too many questions might come back up for air from this breathless whirlwind of a movie empty-handed.
Licorice Pizza is released nationwide on 1st January 2022.
Watch the trailer for Licorice Pizza here: