I don’t think I realized just how much I enjoyed “Licorice Pizza” until the final frame of the end credits dissolved, and I remembered that I had spent the last two hours or so sitting in a movie theater in 2021, not running carelessly around the San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie immersed me so effortlessly in its world and its characters, that I was able to fully put everything else going on in reality out of my mind for a blissful, if all too short, period of time. Drawing from the experiences of his friend Gary Goetzman, a former child actor who was in the movie “Yours, Mine, and Ours” and later started up a waterbed company and pinball arcade, Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” (the title drawn from a chain of record stores that existed in 1970s Los Angeles, slang for vinyl record) is clearly influenced by films like “American Graffiti” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” in its style and structure, but Anderson imbues his story with his own personal nostalgia for the time and place and with themes familiar to his previous work, namely loneliness and love. The result is a series of vignettes that finds his young characters getting into trouble, growing and maturing, falling in and out of love, with the central relationship between Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim) serving as the through-line that pulls it all together.
The story opens on picture day at Gary’s high school. He immediately connects with Alana, who’s working as an assistant for the portrait company. Gary confidently, doggedly pursues her, despite the fact that he’s 15 and she’s 25, an issue that Alana is quick to point out (“you’re underage, it’s illegal,” she tells him). But when Gary asks her to meet him at a restaurant later that evening, she goes, and the pair strike up a friendship. Gary is an actor—one of their first outings involves Alana chaperoning Gary on a trip to New York so he can appear in a variety show promoting a film he’s just been in—and also a fierce entrepreneur, seeing the opportunities for fame and fortune wherever they lie. He works for his mom’s publicity firm, and helps care for his younger brother; he’s independent for his age. He has big ideas, and big dreams, even as his youth keeps him disconnected from real world problems, something that causes a rift between him and the more mature Alana later in the film. Alana, who lives with her large, dysfunctional family (played by her real life parents and sisters) may have a decade on him, but she’s still figuring out her life; she tells Gary at their first dinner together that he’ll be rich and famous by the time he turns 16, and she’ll still be taking kids’ yearbook photos when she’s 30.
Both Gary and Alana are caught between two worlds for much of the film. Gary is a kid trying to be an adult, but he lacks the fundamental maturity necessary to really be considered a grown-up. Alana is trying to be an adult too, but she finds herself constantly drawn back to Gary and his friends. The relationship stays platonic for much of the film, but the obvious jealousy each exhibits when they catch the other in another relationship, and the way they appear to care about each other’s well-being almost instantly, belies something deeper. Whether or not the pair will be able to overcome the differences that come with their age gap is something that remains to be seen, but, after seemingly endless back-and-forths throughout the film, the acknowledgement that they need each other is realized in one of Anderson’s most swooning sequences to date.
So much of “Licorice Pizza” works because of the incredibly natural performances from Hoffman and Haim, both in their feature film debut. Hoffman, the son of late, frequent Anderson collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman, sells Gary as convincingly as Gary sells waterbeds, exhibiting both the character’s outward enthusiasm and inward insecurities. Haim is a revelation, fiercely funny but just as unsure of herself. One of the best scenes in any movie this year is one that comes toward the end of “Licorice Pizza,” a dinner conversation between Alana, Benny Safdie’s politician Joel Wachs, and Joseph Cross as Matthew. Alana has barely any lines of dialogue, but as she sit between Joel and Matthew’s emotionally fraught conversation, Haim’s expression subtly shifts as Alana catches on to what is happening between them. It’s one of the most well-acted scenes I’ve seen in recent memory.
Anderson’s film may have been a real family affair (in addition to Hoffman and the Haim’s, his partner Maya Rudolph and their four children and several of their real-life neighbors and friends appear in the movie), but an assortment of big names pop in and out of the film in supporting roles, often playing versions of real characters or characters inspired by real people. Sean Penn appears as Jack Holden, an aging actor inspired by William Holden, while Christine Ebersole’s brassy Lucy Doolittle is an actress inspired by Lucille Ball. Tom Waits plays director Rex Blau, and John C. Reilly has a quick but fun cameo as Fred Gwynne in full Herman Munster attire. But the most memorable addition is Bradley Cooper playing Jon Peters, a hairdresser-turned-producer who was dating Barbra Streisand at the time. He’s hilariously unhinged, and one of the funniest and wildest scenes in the movie is one in which Gary, Alana, and their friends deliver a waterbed to Peters’ home.
In fact, Anderson’s screenplay for “Licorice Pizza” is one of his warmest and funniest to date, but while most of the humor works, there are two atrocious black spots in the movie that come through exchanges with Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), an associate of Gary’s and a businessman who just opened San Fernando Valley’s first Japanese restaurant, the Mikado. In each scene, Jerry has a different Japanese wife who does not speak English, while Jerry doesn’t speak their language, instead talking to them in English using a grossly affected Asian accent. Chances are, you’ve heard about this controversy whether you’ve seen the film or not, and believe me when I say it’s actually worse than I anticipated. The intent, based on the reaction of the wives and those around them, appears to be “look at this racist moron,” but the scenes just come off as racist. They’re bad, completely unnecessary, and unfunny even though they are clearly played by laughs. There’s no reason to show racism in a humorous context like this, and based on the amount of genuine belly laughs Higgins’ performance got in the theater, an unnerving amount of people watching this movie likely won’t understand the problem with it.
Despite those moments that bring “Licorice Pizza” down a peg, what works in the film works in spades. Anderson brings his usual visual flair to the movie, with his signature long takes and lovingly nostalgic recreation of 1970s LA, from the dim glow of crowded restaurants where you never know who you may run in to, to the warm sunrises and sunsets and the strong silhouettes they create. Jonny Greenwood continues his banger of a year with the score to this movie, which unsurprisingly boasts an incredible soundtrack of 70s classics that are used in conjunction with the story to great effect.
All of Anderson’s movies are in some way about love, whether it’s the obviously romantic heights reached by “Punch Drunk Love” or the more complicated father/son, master/apprentice dynamic established in “The Master.” That theme carries over into “Licorice Pizza,” a movie about first love, minus the complexities of being in an actual relationship. It’s sweet without being cloying, meandering without being aimless, a personal film that still manages to feel so universal. I can’t think of a better way to describe watching it than that it felt like the closer one can come to being hugged by a movie.
“Licorice Pizza” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 133 minutes. Rated R.