Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Licorice Pizza’ is a Masterpiece
The only honest way for me to begin is to simply admit that I adore Licorice Pizza. In fact, I may love it as much as writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson loved making it. The setting is 1970s San Fernando Valley, the area where the director was raised, and it’s such a caring tribute and sweet story (while also being exciting and nostalgic) that it’s tempting to stop writing and just encourage everyone to watch it. My only regret is that for those who weren’t around during this time period, some of the attention to detail and meticulous filmmaking won’t strike the same chord as it will for the rest of us.
Gary Valentine is played by first-time actor Cooper Hoffman, who also happens to be the son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman (Oscar winner, Capote). The elder Hoffman gave some of his best performances in Paul Thomas Anderson movies, so it’s only fitting that the son explodes onto the scene under his tutelage. The character is loosely based on Gary Goetzman, who was a teenage waterbed entrepreneur, musician, and actor, and who is now a successful film and TV producer. In this story, Gary is a 15-year-old actor and hustler – the kind of hustler always looking for the next big thing, whether it be the waterbed craze, or the opening of a pinball parlor. Young Hoffman plays him with an advanced confidence and ever-ready smile that puts people at ease.
On school picture day, Gary strikes up a conversation with photographer assistant Alana Kane (another first-time actor, Alana Haim). She’s 10 years older than Gary, but is smitten by his confidence and conversation skills. You may find it weird that the two become friends. That’s OK, because even Alana thinks it’s weird. In fact, they spend most of the movie acting like they aren’t attracted to each other. Now you may find the situation off-putting, but I assure you it’s handled with grace and care. They make a dynamic duo, with Gary being advanced for his age, while Alana is a bit stunted – or at least, grasping to find herself.
The Gary and Alana story is the heart of the film, yet Anderson injects so many vignettes or additional pieces that there is no time to chill or even think about what we are watching. The brilliance is in the small touches, but also the outrageous moments, of which none are better than Bradley Cooper’s hyped-up role as hairdresser-turned-Producer Jon Peters. His couple of scenes with Gary and Alana are some of the funniest I’ve seen all year. And if that’s not enough, we watch in awe as two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn charms Alana as actor Jack Holden (clearly a poke at Oscar winner William Holden) at the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant. These scenes are crafted as observations on the 1970s, but also clever comedy.
Anderson has packed his cast with recognizable talent. Tom Waits and Christine Ebersole are particularly effective in short scenes, she as real-life agent Lucy Doolittle. Actor-director Benny Safdie shows up as local politician Joel Wachs, and Joseph Cross as his “friend.” John Michael Higgins has a cringe-inducing and politically incorrect role as the owner of an Asian restaurant, and the number of Hollywood bloodlines represented here is too great to count: Sasha and Destry Allen Spielberg, Tim Conway Jr., George DiCaprio (Leo’s dad), and Ray Nicholson (Jack’s boy). Maya Rudolph has a scene, Mary Elizabeth Ellis plays Gary’s mother, and John C. Reilly briefly appears as Herman Munster. On top of all that, Alana Haim’s real-life sisters and parents play her family. If you aren’t familiar, the three Haim sisters make up the well-known band Haim, and have had videos directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has become Anderson’s go-to composer, and his work here dazzles as it maintains the balance between drama and comedy. Beyond Greenwood’s score is the complementary soundtrack featuring the perfect selection of period tunes. Of course, given the time period, we get references of Richard Nixon, Deep Throat, and gas lines due to gas shortages, but Anderson never lets the down time overtake the fun. Director Anderson has 8 Oscar nominations, but no wins despite such extraordinary work as Phantom Thread (2017), There Will Be Blood (2007), Magnolia (1999), and others. It’s a shame this masterpiece has been released in the same year as The Power of the Dog, which will likely keep Anderson out of the winner’s circle yet again. Should you doubt the high level of this film, you’ll likely find yourself thinking this is Gary’s story while you are watching; however, once you have time to absorb what you’ve seen, you’ll realize this is Alana’s coming-of-age story. This is truly remarkable filmmaking and extraordinary film debuts from Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim.