As the young ones say, Licorice Pizza is a mood. Another phrase that applies: your mileage may vary. For some, especially those from the Valley area of Los Angeles, Licorice Pizza will be a warm blanket of nostalgia, evocative of its time and place, full of interesting but relatable characters from a specific era (in this case, 1973). For others, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film will be a page from a past that may be completely alien to their own experiences.
This is very much a personal film for Anderson, and you can tell that Anderson enjoyed creating this world and these people, and telling these stories. There are no judgments to be had from the filmmakers; everyone is bathed in magic hour sunlight, every story is a humorous or sentimental anecdote, and every emotion felt by these characters is amplified in the moment.
The filmmakers may not be making any judgments, but the audience sure might, especially since the story centers around 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) falling hopelessly in love with 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim). The age difference is very much a part of the story, but the nature of their relationship may give some moviegoers pause, because most people will remember what being 15 years old was like, awash in urges and hormones and unable to control any of it.
Even though Alana is aware of Gary’s age, there is something about him that intrigues her. Perhaps it’s Gary’s self-confidence, his constant scheming and hustling to make an opportunistic buck at any moment. Perhaps it’s something deeper, a shared cynicism about the world they are living in, where every older adult they both come across seems to try to exploit them both in some way. But Gary and Alana genuinely care for each other, and tackle every situation that comes their way.
Paul Thomas Anderson pulled many of the stories that fill Licorice Pizza from real life; specifically, his friend Gary Goetzman, who was a child actor in 1973 and who told Anderson some wild stories of his youth, which Anderson documents in Licorice Pizza. Many of these stories are hilarious and wonderful, and Anderson directs each moment as experiential, filtered with a deep nostalgia for the period.
Watching Gary navigate this world on his own terms is a hoot – Gary may be naïve about certain things, but he’s also savvy to the way the world works. Alana, on the other hand, is unsatisfied with her life thus far; her family treats her like a child even though she’s an adult, and suddenly this always-hustling, horny teenager shows up who seems to have everything figured out – until he doesn’t.
Both Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman are terrific. In a certain light, it’s hard not to see something of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cooper’s father, in Cooper’s performance. This is Cooper’s first film, but he goes at it like an old pro. There are nuances to Gary Valentine; he knows his days as a child actor are probably ending, so Gary tries to take advantage any way that he can, whether it’s Gary trying to book a commercial, or exploiting the latest trends. Yet, Gary is overwhelmed by just being 15 years old, and Cooper squeezes every moment of that confusing, exhilarating time in his performance.
Alana Haim is just as good. The film is careful to paint with a fine brush when it comes to Alana’s relationship with Gary, but her feelings for him aren’t simple, either. Is she attracted to Gary the way Gary is attracted to her? Anderson lets the audience decide that for much of Licorice Pizza’s runtime, but through every shared experience and moment they spend together, we can see why they become attached, even if the rest of the world does not.
Paul Thomas Anderson fills Licorice Pizza with quirky, eccentric characters to populate his 1973 Los Angeles, and the way these characters bounce in and out of Gary and Alana’s story makes up a lot of the comedy of the film. Licorice Pizza has some wonderful supporting performances, especially the work of Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper.
Penn plays an old school Hollywood actor who we are never sure is speaking from the heart or just repeating dialogue from his films, and Penn makes him funny and creepy in equal measure. Bradley Cooper owns every minute as real-life producer/hairdresser/boyfriend to Barbra Streisand Jon Peters. Cooper is hilarious, whether it’s Jon Peters trying to intimidate a bunch of kids delivering his waterbed or raging as he runs out of gas on a Los Angeles street.
The nature of the relationship between Gary and Alana may raise a few eyebrows. It should, especially viewed through modern eyes. In the context of the film, however, Gary and Alana are Hollywood-born. Gary knows the score; he’s being exploited – by movie directors, by studios, by marketers, and so he might as well use it to his advantage while he can. He also knows he’s growing out of those halcyon days of being an adorable kid that was cast in every bit part or a commercial that came along.
Alana also lives in Hollywood, and there is not an hour that goes by where someone isn’t trying to take advantage of her. Everyone in this film is orbiting fame and fortune; some have experienced it, and others desperately chase it. A 15-year old, growing up in this world, is a bit different than, say, a 15-year-old boy in a small town. This is not justifying anyone’s behavior, but it’s easier to understand why and how this would happen, given the context.
What is not easy to understand is Paul Thomas Anderson’s inclusion of two scenes that come across as wildly racist towards Asians. It is possible that Anderson is including them because he thought they were funny anecdotes of a less progressive time, but on screen, they sting and are genuinely unpleasant to watch in an otherwise very enjoyable film.
Licorice Pizza, like The Big Lebowski or Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, isn’t a film that is meant to be examined too deeply under a microscope. It’s a film to hang out with, to enjoy the vibe, to bask in these fun and unconventional characters. For most of its running time, it succeeds very well at that. But for many who are unfamiliar with this world, it may be too esoteric for them to appreciate.
I found Licorice Pizza very charming, sweet, and funny, even if it is uneven and awkward at times. Much like a 15-year-old boy can be. Beautifully shot, with a wonderful soundtrack, Licorice Pizza is a warm bath.
LICORICE PIZZA REVIEW SCORE: 8/10
MGM‘s Licorice Pizza is now playing in limited theaters and will expand wider on December 25, 2021. Let us know what you think about this Licorice Pizza review in the comments below.