While there’s never an easy answer in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, it doesn’t exactly need them. Why waste time with easy answers when you can sprint from one thing to the next?
That’s what Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) has to offer to Alana Kane (Alana Haim). Gary is 15 going on 55, while Alana Kane is 25 and seems meant to remain so for the rest of her life. The two will run afoul of the likes of actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn playing a caricature of William Holden), director Rex Blau (Tom Waits), producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), and mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (Bennie Safdie), but the only real story remains between the fast-talking teenager and the indecisive Alana.
PTA has never made an out-and-out coming-of-age comedy before, but his sense of humor is still on display. Nothing has managed to match Boogie Nights (though the pants-shittingly funny final shot of Phantom Thread comes close), but the director seems to have located his funny bone once more in this tale of an adult that is afraid of growing up. It’s not the first of its kind, but it seems to be the director’s answer to the likes of Tarantino and Wright; a jukebox soundtrack hangout film that manages to depict and even romanticize the taboo while also painting it for the disturbing reality that it is.
That grey line is where Licorice Pizza operates, asking us to focus on the inexcusable while unwillingly acknowledging it. Alana and Gary are a toxic set of people but…are they? Gary flirts with the confidence of a 1940s Cary Grant and she responds with all the longing of a depressed Millenial, desperate to be seen and frustrated at how aggressively average her life is. Haim is a revelation in the role, allowing for her broken desperation to be triumphant as an audience howls through the hilarity of Bradley Cooper freaking out over a gas can. It’s a myriad of emotions and anecdotes from 1970s California, one that can evoke nostalgia for an era many of us never saw that nonetheless feels familiar. The “hangout movie” has grown increasingly popular (Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is one of the best recent examples), leaving room for a film that’s entertainingly boring to charm us into relating to the romance between a 25-year-old woman and a 15-year-old hustler.
That hustler attitude envelopes Gary Valentine despite his innate sincerity. I bought into his character solely on his blatant obsession with his adult friend, and that “will-they-won’t-they” sustains energy throughout the film. It’s uncomfortable, hilarious, and awkward in a way that manages to stay compelling far after the general conceit of the film has worn out its welcome with general audiences unsure about how to grapple with these ideas.
A soundtrack that would make other Hollywood jukebox directors jealous doesn’t hurt things, easing us into a lovingly recreated era of Los Angeles that is rife with frustrations. The gas crisis of the Nixon-era America looms large over the film, but it only ever leads us to character situations that are far more hilarious than they are existential. It’s never more than it needs to be, allowing for some of the best early performances we could ask for.
This brings us to Alana Haim. We’ve had more than one star-making performance this year, but this is a magnetic turn that will never play with wider audiences. Haim is destined to be a Sundance darling, eventually landing herself a few Oscar noms and maybe a win, but she’s too genuine and intense to be a romantic lead in anything more mainstream than this. Nonetheless, she shouldn’t be discounted because this is an absolutely wonderful first-time performance that begs a spot in your subconscious. You’ll be seeing more of her, mark my words, and you’ll wish you’d been in on the ground floor.
In the end, I didn’t get as much out of Licorice Pizza as many others did. By the time I got to it the major film communities (New York and Los Angeles in a never-ending masturbatory argument with each other) had gotten a chance to see it, love it, experience backlash and “discourse” on Twitter, and then move on. Instead, I just got to view it as-is: a charming little kick-back film that asks us to believe in true love and toxicity at the same time. It’s a lovely little thing, but it’s going to be too squirmy for most (I cackled like a maniac for most of its runtime).
Licorice Pizza is currently in limited theatrical release, with a VOD release scheduled for January.