Deeply moving, highly engaging, and technically brilliant, Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature, Licorice Pizza, is the most enthralling and thrilling film to be released this year. A chronicle of first love in Southern California circa 1973, the film is a visually arresting coming-of-age story, centering on what it’s like to grow up in the film industry, seen through the perspective of an ambitious teenager trying to diversify what he wants to do next with his fading acting career. Licorice Pizza, which is named after the San Fernando Valley regional store where young people bought their vinyl records, The film is a highly energetic and nostalgic ode to first love, faded memories, and a certain era that Anderson holds so much affection for.
Auteur Anderson takes a far more commercial step forward in his ninth film, while nowhere near as enigmatic or austere as his last four films (Phantom Thread, Inherent Vice, The Master, There Will Be Blood), following the Oscar-nominated success of Phantom Thread, which saw lukewarm box-office success but eventually found its supporters and numerous Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. His exquisite visual style and astonishing filmmaking techniques are once again to be found; on a tonal level, the film echoes the more carefree spirit of Inherent Vice, while also holding deeply compelling storytelling that’s more akin to George Lucas’s American Graffiti.
The comparison with Lucas is apparent. In its approach to its episode structure, which includes many supporting players and situations, it also holds the same spirit as Lucas’s 1973 masterpiece. In many aspects, Licorice Pizza also resembles Quentin Tarantino’s own Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as it explores nostalgia for a certain era where people attempt to work in and throughout the entertainment industry in an ever-changing industry, just minus the pulp, violence, and flamethrowers, of course. To a certain extent, Anderson’s film recalls Fast Times at Ridgemont High in terms of being a sophisticated teenage comedy. All three vastly entertaining films explore life in the SoCal area, which also holds many sordid elements that all capture an endless number of deep characterizations and humanistic touches.
Personal, but not autobiographical, P.T. Anderson’s muse for Licorice Pizza is LA producer Gary Goetzman–who has produced, and executive produced many Hollywood films including The Silence of the Lambs, and he’s also Tom Hank’s producing partner for his production company. Gary Goetzman also started off as a child-actor and P.T. Anderson uses his life story as inspiration with his imaginative storytelling and visual slickness. Renamed as Gary Valentine and played with pure affection by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son, Cooper Hoffman, who plays a 15-year-old actor who ends up embarking on entrepreneurship, first love, and other loosely fabricated adventures in and throughout Los Angeles.
On the outside, P.T. Anderson’s ninth feature appears to be innocent and gentle, but upon a revisit there is some subtle condemnation in the film on mostly older men, who used their power and stature in the film business to prey on women’s dreams, back in a time where sexism ran very rampant, P.T. Anderson makes no compromises either way in showing how life was at the time-while at the same time also showing a sweet and innocent side as well. The innocent side of the film is obviously quite evident. It was a time where teenagers could run their own enterprise and open a waterbed and pinball business, in which Gary Goetzman reportedly did when he was a teenager and Gary Valentine (Hoffman) does as well.
Gary’s business finds him delivering waterbeds to couple Jon Peters and at the time girlfriend Barbara Streisand–in which during that era Jon Peters was a celebrity hairdresser before he would come on board as a producer in A Star is Born (1976) –in this segment of the film Peters is played in a memorable and hysterical cameo from Bradley Cooper who’s also a oversexed womanizer who dresses like Warren Beatty’s character from Shampoo. Throughout the episode film, P.T. Anderson holds a lot of mesmerizing run-ins that almost play out like vignettes of various Hollywood legends that consist of A list actors, producers, casting agents, and seasoned film directors, but beneath all of these interludes lies the film’s most remarkable character named Alana Kane (Played by musician Alana Haim who is the front lady of the sister band Haim), who ends up becoming Gary’s love interest right when he first encounters her in an astonishing opening scene at Gary’s high school where Alana is working as a photographer assistant for Gary’s school yearbook portraits as Nina Simone’s July Trees plays over the impeccable long-take tracking shots of Gary and Alana having their flirty and tender exchanges.
Alana ends up being persuaded by Gary’s charm and pathetic attempts in asking her out–she reluctantly agrees to meet him for a planktonic dinner at a nearby restaurant. On the first date, Gary is very nervous and socially awkward, but he is so endearing that Alana can’t help but not enjoy his company. Just to be clear, there is nothing creepy or uncomfortable about this relationship. Licorice Pizza is going to be an easy target for the PC Twitter police, but everything is tastefully done in this film. There are no sex scenes, the friendship between Gary and Alana are very gentle (that also comes with some jealousy, hardships, misunderstandings, and other complexities), and most importantly P.T. Anderson delivers a lot of character depth to Alana and Gary where their friendship allows them to reevaluate themselves and come to terms with what they want in life and what their aspirations are. For Alana, she’s in her 20s, lives at home with her parents and sister’s still (All played by the Haim family in hilarious roles), and she can’t quite decide if she wants to be an actress, get into politics, or find love. She’s just as confused as any teenager would be at Gary’s age. For Gary, he holds a lot of sexual angst and tension for his age. There are some aspects to him where he’s very immature that is off-putting to Alana, but in many regards he’s also very determined as he’s always thinking of ways to make extra money–which involves him renting out store space to sell his newly legal pinball machines and brand-new waterbeds. A clever tribute to Punch-Drunk Love in which Cooper’s father played a mattress salesman.
The relationship to Alana remains more like sister-brother, whereas to Gary, he really wants her as a girlfriend–even when he ends up becoming her boss. At first, he ends up bringing her an adult chaperone to New York for a publicity bit for a show he’s in after his mom states she can’t take him due to work, but Alana agrees to. However, once the acting dries up after an embarrassing audition run by Gale (Maya Rudolph), who begins to realize Gary is starting to get too old for kid roles in TV shows and ad spots. Alana is very drawn into the entertainment industry and wants to act, which Gary introduces Alana to his agent played hilariously by Harriet Sansom Harris.
After discovering a waterbed on display at a wig shop, Gary is easily drawn into these new inventions. He ends up diversifying his acting money and invests into a few waterbeds and launches his new company called Soggy Bottom at a teenage showbusiness fair where thing camera tracks Gary in an impeccably staged long-take camera shot that echoes the Jack-Rabbit Slim restaurant in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The bravura sequence involves a very hysterical cameo that I won’t reveal, please do not read any spoilers. Strange events occur once the police end up coming in and handcuffing Gary away, which leads to Alana running all the way from the fair to the station in impressive tracking shots. It’s there where we realize Alana does care for Gary. Once he’s out of out of jail, Gary diversifies his acting money and invests them into waterbeds and opens his own waterbed store called Soggy Bottom.
Meanwhile, at its core the film really becomes a journey of Alan and her own self-discovery: trying different careers, different jobs, and even changing her fashion. She changes her personality and struggles to find what she really wants. In each of Anderson’s films until Licorice Pizza, the main characters have been male characters from Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love, all the way to Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread, and Anderson proves he holds deep characterizations for Alana is Anderson’s second-female lead in the oeuvre next to Vicky Kreips in Phantom Thread. Even though Alan attempts to reshape and reinvent herself, she constantly finds endless disappointment from men who keep getting her hopes up. Weather it’s a date with a big-shot Hollywood actor named Jack Holden (Sean Penn embodying a William Holden), who ends up becoming more interested in doing a stunt than having company with Alana at the same restaurant she had her first date with Gary at. Or with Jon Peters who keeps coming onto her very uncomfortable ways that makes Gary quite combative in his own way. This occurs in one intense and impeccably staged sequence that involves the moving truck that transports the waterbeds running out of gas during the national gas shortages in the 70s. Regardless, Alana can’t maintain a relationship, but Gary always seems to be there for her when she needs someone there for her the most. He might be younger and immature, but Gary isn’t creepy or predatory like the other men who are looking to prey on younger women with their fortune and status.
The casting of Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim is pure perfection and naturalistic. Hoffman embodies Gary, with pimples and raging with hormones is pitch-perfect for this character. Alana Haim embodies Alana Kane is also outstanding, in fact, Alana Haim delivers one of the most satisfying and layered performances of the year. She is sophisticated, stern, conflicted, and strong-willed who also reveals so many vulnerabilities and uncertainties in what she wants in her life. The chemistry between Hoffman and Haim is comical, charming, dizzying, and even poignant, even though their friendship echoes shades of an actual relationship—in which one of Gary’s female classmates that takes an interest in him at his mattress store (where he also holds late night parties) points out that Alana feels like his girlfriend, where Gary replies “She’s not my girlfriend.” Some of the most hilarious and equally heartbreaking moments in the film come when they both get jealous of each other when someone else takes an interest in them. Alana ends up briefly dating Lance (Skylder Gisondo), who is one of Gary’s fellow co-stars on a TV Show, who has about 4 or 5 years on him. Gary observes them at a burger joint holding hands together, as he eats his burger with his mom and suggests they take their food home, you can see Gary’s jealousy and sadness read on his face, you can’t help but feel for him. This leads to a beautiful phone call where Gary calls Alana on a rotary phone disguised as Lance, but stays silent once Alana picks up the phone–but Alana has a feeling it’s Gary as they both have a beautiful phone call with no words where they just feel each other’s presence. It’s glimpses like this where one can easily realize that P.T. Anderson is not only a brilliant craftsman, an exceptional storyteller, but also a very human director who understands the longing of genuine human connection.
Very much an exuberant and energetic piece of filmmaking, the film’s deft balance of comedy and sincerity makes it a highly engaging and involving experience. There’s nothing labored or forced in the film. In terms of her first performance, Alana Haim’s character delivers an amusing, layered, and comical performance as a lost, questioning woman who’s trying to find her place in the world. Once Gary fails to mature or grow, she realizes time is moving on and she realizes she wants to have some purpose in her life. Alana ends up working as a campaign staffer for San Fernando Valley Councilman and Mayor candidate Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), and for the first time in a while, she feels she is making a substantial difference. She begins to feel some attachment to both Joel and Brian, an old friend, and fellow campaign staffer. In a very tender scene, she is put into a very difficult situation with Joel, Brian, and a friend of Joel’s named Matthew (Joseph Cross), which allows her to reevaluate herself even more. Meanwhile, Gary is a little older, more mature, and has upgraded his business from waterbeds to pinballs. The relationship and dynamics between Gary and Alana are certainly complicated, but they are both always there for each other up until a very memorable climax that is P.T. Anderson’s most endearing since Punch-Drunk Love.
Anderson is clearly attempting to make his most accessible film yet, but it’s still visually ambitious and it is by far the most visually slick film of the year. He also vividly recreates the era to pure perfection thanks to the wardrobe by Mark Bridges, the production design by Florencia Martin, and Anderson’s own cinematography work he shares credit with Michael Bauman does wonders. One of the most jaw-dropping and brilliantly staged moments in the film involves Gary running in a slow-motion tracking shot past a long line of vehicles waiting for gas during the gas shortage of 1973 as David Bowie’s Life on Mars plays beautifully in the background. You can’t help but be in awe with the craft and artistry- on display in this monumental film. The scene and staging of the shot are also a clear homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 masterpiece Weekend which also has cars piled up in a traffic jam.
No matter what you read or what I write in this review, no words can express the absolute joy there is to find in this canvas of a film. Licorice Pizza is more than a movie, it’s an event of a film, a purely cinematic and luminous experience that is going to be embraced for generations. MGM/United Artist is currently opening in very selective cities with its 70mm presentation being one of the most cinematically rewarding experiences I have ever endured in my life.
Superbly cast, each actor in this film has a moment to shine–the chemistry and affection Hoffman and Haim have for one another rises to the occasion in their debut roles. They are both bound to get more roles after this film. Alana Haim certainly deserves Oscar attention for Best Actress for her wonderful performance. Her character is one of Anderson’s greatest characters that he’s ever written and directed. She shines in every scene, and you root for her to find her way. The supporting cast has big players, but they come and go, but they all hold such memorable scenes that you will understand where the term “quality over quantity” comes from.
It’s very unclear how much time passes in Licorice Pizza. It can be months or even a few years. It’s clearly not enough for Gary to be 18, but it might be close. Gary eventually starts driving on his own, and you can see him maturing and getting wiser as the film progresses. One thing is for certain, Licorice Pizza is a mesmerizing experience that is filled with balletically choreographed camera movements, impressive set-pieces, and memorable characters from a faded era. The way the love story plays out between Alana and Gary is transcendental. We are watching love unravel in the most innocent and equally messiest ways, while yielding at its most genuine. With its memorable performances and astonishing visuals, P.T. Anderson has done it again by creating another unforgettable masterpiece in his first-rate oeuvre, Licorice Pizza is the best film of the year.