Newcomers shine in irreverent P.T. Anderson flick
December 29, 2021
Let’s get this out of the way right at the top: Licorice Pizza is not about a pernicious pizzeria that tops their pies with the twisty black or red confection. Instead, the title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest masterwork refers to a defunct chain of record shops that circulated around southern California in the early 1970s.
Though the film’s original title, Soggy Bottom, is referenced more explicitly in the film, Licorice Pizza is the kind of West Coast callback that falls in line with the “if you know, you know” vibe that Anderson evokes through this expertly made hangout movie. Sprinkled with facsimiles of Hollywood titans from William Holden to Lucille Ball, this is a trip through San Fernando Valley that feels too real to be entirely fictitious but magical enough to convince us that something ineffable really existed in that time and place.
Based loosely on the teenage exploits of film producer Gary Goetzman, Licorice Pizza stars Cooper Hoffman as Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old actor who always has his eyes on the next project before the current one is completed. He meets Alana (Alana Haim) while waiting in line to have his school picture taken and feels an immediate connection. It isn’t exactly love at first sight for Alana, who’s older and seemingly wiser than the cherubic but indefatigable Gary, but the two remain friends as they see what life has in store for them.
Set across rolling hills of endless opportunity, Gary and Alana navigate entrepreneurship and emotional insecurity while well-known figures like the imprudent producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and up-and-coming politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) pop in along the way.
Recalling both the off-kilter romanticism of Punch-Drunk Love and madcap episodic nature of the inscrutable but atmospheric Inherent Vice, Anderson once again casts a spell of winsome unpredictability more successfully than any other director working today. Refining the cinematography chops he established brilliantly in his previous Phantom Thread, he works this time with Michael Bauman to establish a lovely but lived-in look that mirrors the dust one might brush off their favorite LP before taking it for a spin. The camera often chases breathlessly after these young hopefuls as they search for their place in the Valley and in the world, like pinballs bouncing gleefully off the colorful bumpers that manifest before them.
Performances Exceed Expectations
Though the cast is filled out by veterans and familiar faces, the lead duo enters Licorice Pizza with no prior feature acting credits to their names. Hoffman, son of the late Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman, gives Valentine a devious charm that works on nearly everyone but seems to stop short when Alana is at her most prickly. Haim, supported in the film by her real-life sisters and parents, presents the cynicism of a twentysomething unsatisfied with how her dreams fell short but still determined to seek out her watershed moment. Together, the two are absolutely electric, sporting a playful energy and seesaw repartee that makes the most of Anderson’s already lively screenplay. We don’t know how or when they’ll end up together, but we know we’ll want to be there the moment it happens.
As it turns out, there are quite a number of vignettes that play out before that moment, and I was completely taken with nearly all of them. Most of the asides and non-sequiturs follow Anderson’s idiosyncratic and indelible sense of humor. For instance, Gary and Alana meet with a casting director who interrupts Alana’s wayward interview by picking up a ringing phone and proceeds with a minute-long conversation in which she merely utters “no” three times with varying inflections before hanging up the receiver. There’s a hushed sequence with an out-of-gas moving truck floating down the Hollywood Hills that was more exhilarating than any car chase I’ve seen this year.
Exuberant and eccentric, Licorice Pizza is a slice-of-life tale of two young souls who spin their wheels in every direction until they finally move in sync.
More Movies to Watch This Weekend
Streaming on Netflix is The Lost Daughter, a psychological drama starring Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson about a woman who finds herself becoming obsessed with another woman and her daughter while on a summer holiday.
Continuing its run in theaters is A Journal for Jordan, a Denzel Washington-directed drama starring Michael B. Jordan and Chanté Adams about a fallen U.S. Army Sergeant and the journal he left behind for his wife and son as a way of moving on without him.
Also still playing in theaters is American Underdog, a sports biopic starring Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin about the life and career of Super Bowl MVP and Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner.