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‘Licorice Pizza’ Review: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Coming-of-Age Comedy Is a Perfect Slice of ’70s Nostalgia
Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim, and Bradley Cooper all join the pantheon of PTA’s greatest performances in a euphorically hilarious ode to Nixon-era Encino.
Gary Valentine is 15 going on 30, Alana Kane is “25” but in air quotes that basically allow her to be whatever it might say on her eventual dream ticket out of Encino, and they first cross paths on a pale 1973 morning in the San Fernando Valley at a strange moment in history when Old Hollywood and New Hollywood have started to overlap. Bing Crosby is still alive even though Jim Morrison is already dead, and it feels like everyone is more or less the same age because no one really knows what time actually means anymore.
They meet on yearbook portrait day at the local high school, and Alana — working as an assistant for the handsy photographer — walks up to Gary with a mirror in her hands, only to find that this pimple-faced hustler is less concerned with last looks than he is with first impressions. Gary starts hitting on Alana with the unslakable thirst of a teenage boy and the empty courage of someone who doesn’t think anyone will ever take him seriously. He spits a lot of motor-mouthed game about being a child actor, but flirts as if he’s being interviewed by William F. Buckley on an episode of “Firing Line” (“There’s too much reality in pictures now” is but one choice line in a marathon-length meet-cute throbbing with electric banter).
When Alana calls him out (“you’re 12,” she says, nailing the age he plays on TV), Gary responds by asking her to meet him for a drink later. Like so much of the whirlwind friendship that follows — and like almost every scene of the spectacular, intoxicating, and thoroughly hilarious film that watches along — it’s hard to tell if it’s a date or a dare.
Maybe Gary is just throwing paint at the wall like he always does when trying to sell people on the idea of himself, which is all of the time, or maybe some part of him can already sense that Alana will “buy” whatever male bullshit is flung her way because this ultra-capable battering ram of a woman has been conditioned to believe that her currency isn’t good for anything else. When she actually shows up at Tail o’ the Cock that night, it’s as if Gary and Alana are both calling each other’s bluff. And so begins the most honest relationship that either of them have ever had.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s holyfuckingshitIlovemovies-great “Licorice Pizza” is undeniably a coming-of-age movie — his first clear-cut contribution to a genre defined by the kind of pathological self-invention and animalistic need for acceptance that have also fueled each of his eight previous features — but it’s not really about growing up. For one thing, both of its leads have already grown up (or at least aggressively sideways) to a certain extent, and just need someone to recognize the people they’ve become in the process. For another, there’s always been a terminally childish quality to even Anderson’s oldest characters.
Gary Valentine might be younger than the likes of Reynolds Woodcock, Doc Sportello, and Frank T.J. Mackey, but he isn’t necessarily any less mature. A latchkey goofball who looks after his little brother like a step-son and starts no fewer than three separate businesses over the course of this film with Alana’s help (some of them moderately successful!), Gary either understands how things work better than anyone. He’s like the fish at the poker table who keeps winning hands because he doesn’t know enough to fold. “Just say yes,” he advises Alana while prepping her for a meeting with a half-cranked talent agent played by “Phantom Thread” showstopper Harriet Sansom Harris, “you can always learn how to do something once you get the part.”
A tone-setter in what soon becomes Anderson’s funniest movie, the scene is a monument to the auteur’s ultra-dry comedic wit, which often wrings its best laughs from characters who are so themselves they forget that other people can even see them. And from that scene, Gary’s words resonate like a worldview — a philosophy Cooper Hoffman completely embodies in a screen debut that anchors Gary with a self-actualized sense of purpose even when he’s so full of hot air that it seems like he might float off the ground at any minute.
Gary is part salesman, part showman, and always the cat who caught the canary (at least so far as Alana is concerned), but the real beauty of Hoffman’s performance is that he plays this kid as a romantic more than anything else. The older woman with “the very Jewish nose” isn’t just a mark to him, she’s why he’s in love with life itself. She’s why Gary founds a waterbed startup after Leonardo DiCaprio’s dad shows him their erotic potential, a venture that gives this episodic memory palace of a movie something that resembles a plot (and seals it with a poignant connection to the Mattress Man who Hoffman’s late father Philip Seymour so memorably immortalized in “Punch-Drunk Love”).
And she’s why Gary finds himself in a very close encounter with Barbra Streisand’s coked-up sex pest of a boyfriend. He’s played by Bradley Cooper, rampaging through his role as future “A Star Is Born” and “Wild Wild West” producer Jon Peters like a horny T-1000 in a sequence of such anarchic splendor that its 20 minutes alone are enough to make “Licorice Pizza” one of the very best movies of the year.
Alana is also the reason why Gary runs through a standstill gas station line during the 1973 oil crisis shouting “it’s the end of the world!” with a stupid grin on his face as David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” blares over the soundtrack. In fact, he and Alana are constantly running towards each other whenever they’re not in the same place, as if they’re magnets pulled back together by the natural energy of the universe. They might have collided with more violent force in Anderson’s previous films (all of which find strange bedfellows people being drawn into one another’s orbits in ways that seem more capably explained by astrophysics than narrative), but “Licorice Pizza” is a little sweeter and less tortured a love story than “Phantom Thread” or “Punch-Drunk Love.” The sun is bright, the nights feel like fond memories in the making, everything that happens seems equally possible.
The Adam Sandler movie nevertheless proves to be this one’s closest relative, both in the lens-flare purity of its spirit and the bumper-car freneticism of its direction. The camera in “Licorice Pizza” is an extension of the characters in front of it and the movie they’re pin-balling across: It’s not always sure where it’s going, but it’s hellbent on getting there without stopping, and enraptured by what it might find along the way. Still, the differences from Anderson’s other movies are even more instructive than the similarities.
Anyone nostalgic for the “Magnolia” days will be delighted by the latticework of tracking shots and long dollies he busts out here, which evoke the verve of that earlier work but without the same biblical anxiety. After all, this is a local tale about two shipwrecked bootleggers who bob into each other while drifting in opposite directions between adolescence and adulthood, not a city-wide mosaic where everyone’s souls hang in the balance and frogs rain down from the sky.
And where “Punch-Drunk Love” was a twinkly music box arranged with the mad intricacy of a Rube Goldberg machine, “Licorice Pizza” stays true to the last-minute title Anderson came up with for it — finding its groove and then spinning in place. Anderson’s script is too sharp and well-shaped for this to feel like a hangout movie, but almost every scene is structured like a self-contained joke that eventually lands on just the right punchline or doubles back to find it later (as we see with John Michael Higgins’ super-racist Japanese restaurant owner, a swing-for-the-fences cameo in a film where everyone is trying to hit a home run).
The plot unfolds with the logic and snow-balling momentum of a stand-up comedy set, as seemingly crucial story beats fall onto the cutting room floor in favor of the flashbulb memories that you never forget about your first love. We don’t see Gary decide to quit acting or volunteer his services — whatever those are — to shoot a campaign ad for city council candidate Joel Wachs (a furtive Benny Safdie). These things just sort of happen in the space between cuts. On the other hand, Anderson devotes several minutes to a scene in which Gary and Alana take turns calling each other and wordlessly breathing into the phone; not in a cute way, but in a “I resent that we crossed paths because it’s so obnoxious to pretend I don’t want to be hanging out with you every second of my stupid life” sort of way… which is also kind of cute. As Aimee Mann once sang it: “Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?”
Which brings us at long last to Alana Kane — and to the incredible first-time actress who launches her into the crowded pantheon of Anderson’s greatest characters. What kind of twentysomething woman pals around with a pubescent 15-year-old boy? It’s a question that “Licorice Pizza” doesn’t frame head-on or with the tsk-tsking judgment that some people demand from their art these days, but it’s also one that Anderson is asking whenever Alana is onscreen. Why is Lancaster Dodd so drawn to a fuck-up like Freddie Quell? Why does Reynolds Woodcock go all ham-eyed over a humble country waitress named Alma? Why does a sweet thing like Lena Leonard need Barry Egan as much as (cue the “Popeye” song) he needs her, he needs, he needs her? Because it’s mutual. Because the universe only calls so often, and life’s too short to hang up the phone.
Which isn’t to say that “Licorice Pizza” makes excuses for its May-December (or March-April) romance, or that the movie is even remotely as libidinous as Gary wishes that it were. There’s an obvious psychosexual attraction between him and Alana, but this movie is much, much more interested in how these characters belong to each other than it is in having them consummate that bond in the classical sense. In fact, sex only becomes a less valuable form of expression as the film goes on, particularly during a second half that finds Alana bulldozing her way through the most inspired string of failed sexual encounters this side of “Eyes Wide Shut,” all of them with much older men who treat her like an accessory. (Sean Penn’s self-parodying appearance as a stand-in for William Holden builds to the kind of comic setpiece this movie singlehandedly revives several times over.)
Through it all, Alana Haim renders her character an addictively volatile mix of conviction and insecurity; few people have ever been so comfortable in their own skin, and yet she’d do anything to shed it. She’s a tempest in a teapot, sick of being trapped in the Valley but so tired of trying to claw her way out that she feels unworthy of leaving. “You’re never going to remember me,” she tells Gary soon after they meet, and it’s a testament to both of this film’s lead performances that we can already tell that she’s wrong. “Stop using time as an excuse,” Gary fires back. In “Licorice Pizza,” time isn’t something that keeps people apart — it’s the only thing that allows them to find each other in the first place. And this euphoric movie doesn’t waste a minute of it.