A beautifully nostalgic young-love story set in the 1970s San Fernando Valley
The personal is universal in Paul Thomas Anderson’s affectionate confection Licorice Pizza, a swoony-moony ode to young love in the Felliniesque world of 1973’s San Fernando Valley. This is PTA in full-bloom romance mode, and not just for a couple of sweet kids. He’s completely besotted by a time and a place and a specific moment in everyone’s life when the world is wide open and thrillingly, frighteningly possible.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
LICORICE PIZZA ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie
Running time: 133 mins
A teenage Cooper Hoffman plays the girl-crazy 15-year-old-lead with adorably insecure overconfidence. It’s little wonder that Anderson named him Gary Valentine. Gary’s a just-past-his-prime child actor with desperation-sparked gumption to spare. And when, at his high school’s class photo day, he falls hard for photographer’s assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim), he doesn’t care that she’s a prickly 25-year-old who eye-rolls at his swagger. Chicks dig confidence, and she’s lacking just enough to pique her interest. So she reluctantly meets at his favorite eatery, a boozy low-lit joint unsubtly called Tail o’ the Cock. It’s easy to find Gary: he’s the one sipping Cokes at the bar. “You’re not going to remember me,” she scoffs in a self-effacing dismissal. “I’m not going to forget you,” he replies. “Just like you’re not going to forget me.”
She blows him off, of course, but he keeps reeling her back into his orbit. And that age-gap statutory-rape ickiness keeps their pas-de-deux physically platonic—while making it even more yearningly emotional. Alana chaperones him on a trip to New York for a tacky TV appearance reuniting the kid cast from a hammy movie musical starring long-in-the-tooth Lucille Dolittle (Christine Ebersole aping a gravelly Lucille Ball). Then Gary thinks waterbeds are the next big thing, so she helps him start a business as wobbly as the merch called Fat Bernie’s. “He’s a cute little hustler,” says Frisbee, a lithe twentysomething local who’s given him the occasional hand job.
He’s from Sherman Oaks, she’s from Encino: Hollywood-adjacent neighborhoods with small-town charm and big-dream bluster. It’s where conventions like the Pop Fair let the hoi polloi see the Batmobile and Herbie the Love Bug while getting autographs from Herman Munster (a wink-wink cameo from John C. Reilly playing Fred Gwynne). And where strivers like Gary and Alana are bound to connect. He even helps land her a talent agent, goading her to lie about her resumé—which she eagerly does, about everything from fluency in four languages to mastery of Israeli martial arts. But what good is a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude when everything seems so fake? Which only makes both of them ache for something—anything—in their lives that really feels genuine.
Lifelong Angeleno Anderson first tackled the San Fernando Valley with his peacocking porn epic Boogie Nights, then again with the schematic, go-for-broke-but-kind-of-a-mess ensemble whatsit Magnolia. And he’s done romance before, first with the eccentric Adam-Sandler-in-an-art-film lark Punch-Drunk Love and then the wonderfully constipated Brit-pic Phantom Thread. He’s also done Grand Statement pictures like oil-magnate gothic portrait There Will Be Blood and Scientology psychodrama The Master. He’s carved out his place as a commanding director with protean tastes and swing-for-the-fences ambition with occasional hit-or-miss results.
But Licorice Pizza is his genuinely personal film, remarkably so, tender and heartfelt in a way that seems, up to now, absolutely foreign to his sensibilities. He’s explained in interviews that the story is loosely based on events that happened to his friend, film producer and former child actor Gary Goetzman. And casting the son of his beloved collaborator, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, was part of that desire to keep it close-knit. So, too, was using Alana Haim, since he’s known her for years and—even weirder—her mom was his grade-school teacher.
His filmmaking here is mature puerility: an innate self-assurance in an eccentric subject matter and quirky characters that others might feel flimsy or worth mockery. There’s such rich humor about and love for all of Los Angeles’ absurdity that can only come from someone who’s spent a lifetime macerated by that thirsty, mirage-hungry climate. Just watch Alana try to read the mixed flirty signals from vain, venerable movie star Jack Holden (Sean Penn riffing on William Holden). “I don’t understand,” she says. “But I’m sexy, right?”
Licorice Pizza is an episodic string of pearls, like remembered fever dreams. What about that time the aging matinee idol jumped a firepit on his motorcycle? Or when rageaholic Hollywood Hills pussyhound Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper, hopped-up and beyond extra) threatened to blowtorch some guy’s face with a gas pump? Best of all: opening a pinball palace after California makes it legal for the first time since 1939! Wait—pinball was illegal?
It’s a WTF wet kiss for all the young dudes feeling like they’re running in place and running out of time. Like, literally running: Gary and Alana don’t always have a car, and Anderson features a lot of shots of them sprinting down the streets. It’s a film for anyone who feels like imminent adulthood is a constant, chronic bluff. Or like driving a delivery truck with an empty tank down a winding road, backwards, which Alana incidentally handles with aplomb in one of the film’s hilariously white-knuckled moments.
Whether it’s Gary, raised with his little brother by a single mom and feeling pressure to be the alpha dog; or Alana, living in a nice Jewish home with two sisters who just don’t understand. They want to be something else, something bigger, something grand. And yet their charming, low-key, minor-player relationship—in its own way full of valor, grace, vulnerability, and sacrifice—is magnificence enough. Licorice Pizza is unlikely perfection; it’ll be hard for Anderson to top himself. To quote Rex Blau, a braggadocious film director bloviated by Tom Waits: “You shiny, gold, inexpensive prick!”