After getting noticed for his somewhat modest first feature Hard Eight, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson quickly became an indie cinema darling with his flashy, sprawling follow-ups Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Aside from a few oddities though, since then he has focused largely on more focused stories like There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Phantom Thread. Those films are highly acclaimed for good reason, but there will always be a part of me that wants to see him dabble again with something more akin to his early epics, and with this movie I feel like he gets closer to that than he has in a long time, with some of the quirk of his 4th feature Punch-Drunk Love thrown in for good measure.
Licorice Pizza sees him returning to Southern California in the 1970s, as we meet Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the band Haim). Gary is a 15 year-old child actor who has begun to age out of many opportunities and is using the money he earned from his roles to finance a series of business ventures that he runs along with his mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and friends. Alana is a 25 year-old struggling to get her life together, still living at home, and working as an assistant for a school photography company. The two first meet as she walks Gary in for his picture and he finds himself immediately smitten with her. She repeatedly rebuffs his attempts at smooth-talking advances for pretty obvious reasons, but still finds something about him appealing, and winds up meeting him at a fancy local restaurant.
From there the two become friends and get involved in a series of schemes and adventures ranging from selling waterbeds to opening a pinball parlor to working on a mayoral campaign, as they both discover who they are and what they wind up meaning to each other. Gary seemingly has his life together and acts more mature than other teenagers most of the time, but still reacts childishly to some situations, while Alana has been struggling to get hers in order while still wanting to experience more of the freewheeling joy of youth. So she waffles between wanting to spend more time with Gary and his friends and trying to take the next step in her life. Hoffman and Haim both shine as these characters and make them feel convincingly alive, despite some of the more outlandish moments in the story.
The age gap means that their relationship can’t really move beyond friendship, but it’s still sweet to see it develop amongst the amusingly absurdist situations they put themselves into. I can’t imagine any of us had experiences quite like these growing up, but we can still recognize and relate to the core struggles of finding ourselves as young people. If at first it plays out a bit like a young male’s fantasy of having an older woman fall in love with him it winds up being more about that woman’s trying to come into her own.
The direction isn’t quite as flashy as in Anderson’s aforementioned Boogie Nights or Magnolia, but neither is it as staid as his later work. Beautiful cinematography throughout, zippy editing, and perfect song choices further help to elevate the mood. The snappy screenplay postively sings and doesn’t shy away from showing the casual racism, sexism, and homophobia of the time, even if it may play all 3 a little too much for laughs. It’s a near perfect microcosm of a time, both in society and in 2 people’s lives, that remains a joy to watch throughout. Like the best pizza, you’ll find yourself wanting more than one slice. ★★★★★
Rated R for Language, Sexual Material, and Some Drug Use.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor