Now on VOD, Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest ambitious endeavor, a SoCal-set period comedy that runs childlike down urban sidewalks and rolls precariously down curving hills. It’s a love story made all the more thorny by Alana Haim of pop-rock band Haim, playing the older woman to Cooper Hoffman’s (son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) not-yet-of-age teen romantic interest – and you won’t be surprised to learn it’s catnip for critics, who continue to anoint Anderson as the next Robert Altman. The film earned three Oscar nods, including Best Picture, if you give a damn about that (and you probably shouldn’t). So is it worthy of the acclaim and hype? What a silly question. Of course it is.
The Gist: It’s 1973 and Alana (Alana Haim) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman) are impossible. They’re bigger than life – like memories. Nostalgic memories. She’s aimless, uncertain, prickly, bold, hilarious. He’s confident, charismatic, enterprising, narcissistic, clueless. She’s 25, he’s 15. I think they’re in love, but, oof. That’s why they’re impossible. They meet on school picture day. He’s a student and she’s a photographer’s assistant. He turns on the cornball charm and she says “I’m not going on a date with you, you’re 12” and could easily walk away from him but doesn’t. Magnets. How do they work?
That day, Gary told her he’d be at Tail o’ the Cock that night. That night, she shows up. She. Actually. Shows. Up. He beams. Beams like the high-beams on his mom’s ’68 GTO convertible. Did that have the button on the floor to turn on the brights? The one that goes ch-CLUNK when you toggle it with your toe? Not sure, but I’m going to pretend it does. “Don’t be creepy, please,” she says. He can’t not be creepy. He’s 15 and she’s 25 and they’re on a… date? It’s not a date, she says, sensibly and vehemently. Here we learn that he’s a kid actor who was in that movie with the big TV star playing one of her too-many children, and he’s been on Merv Griffin three times. Oh, and he has his own PR firm. How can this be? He’s 15 and she’s 25 and she has nothing going except a shitty go-nowhere underling job for a photographer who smacks her on the ass.
What with one thing or another, Gary needs a chaperone for a trip to New York for a TV appearance to promote the movie about the ridiculously gigantic family, and Alana ends up being that chaperone. How did that happen? I told you: what with one thing or another. We don’t see how it happens, but we can imagine, and that’s enough. On the trip she meets LANCE (Skyler Gisondo), all caps necessary, and Gary’s crushed because his crush crushes on a guy who’s, y’know, legal. Or maybe she’s not crushing on LANCE and she just wants to make a statement to Gary about her willingness to make herself available to Gary, and be thankful I’m here to clarify her intentions: she wants to be available to Gary but is deliberately not making herself available to Gary for reasons of propriety.
So she’s absolutely NOT available to Gary, except she keeps showing up in scenes with Gary, entire sequences with Gary, whole chunks of the movie with Gary, whole chunks in which he starts a waterbed business and tries to sell them at the local Teen-age Fair and opens a storefront and delivery service, things that Alana makes better by not just helping out, but kind of partnering with Gary on them. Is she your girlfriend, people ask him, and she answers for him, NO, we’re business partners, and the vehement denials push so hard and defiant you wonder if she wishes the answer was YES. Gary would like it to be YES, but there are issues here. One, he’s a shit, a little shit, and two, he’s 15 and she’s 25.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s American Graffiti, except he was three in 1973, so it’s not an airtight analogy. It has vibes similar to Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and (the criminally underrated) Everybody Wants Some!!!. Also, is it a coincidence that Licorice Pizza and Red Rocket both address the anathema of the older-underage relationship dynamic, and happen to be the funniest movies of 2022? (Yes, it’s a coincidence.)
Performance Worth Watching: Alana Haim is a sparkplug (who got screwed out of an Oscar nomination, if you want to grind that axe) who gives a performance that, we’re convinced, nobody else could give. Hoffman is a wonder as well, and their chemistry is the vital, bloody, beating heart of this film.
Memorable Dialogue: Alana and Lance break up:
Alana: What does your penis look like?
Alana: What does your penis. Look. Like?
Lance: Like a regular penis, I guess.
Sex and Skin: None. She doesn’t see his penis, that’s why she has to ask.
Our Take: I skipped all the flashy stuff in “the gist” above, the referential showbiz miscellanea, the cameos by famous people and the L.A.-ness of it all, so here it is: Alana’s rudderless life leads to an audition for a movie star played by Sean Penn, who puts her on the back of a motorcycle for a drunken stunt, egged on by a boozy barker played by Tom Waits. Benny Safdie of the Safdie Bros., directors of Good Time and Uncut Gems, plays a councilman running for mayor, and Alana proves to be a valuable volunteer for his campaign (she hires Gary to shoot the promotional films). One of Gary’s PR clients is the owner of a Japanese restaurant played by John Michael Higgins, who does a racist caricature of Japanese people to… dubious effect? For us, the audience. Is that one way to put it?
Most notably, Bradley Cooper tears it up as “Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend,” a coked-up maniac who wants to destroy or have intercourse with everything he sees. Alana and Gary figure out too late that dealing with the guy isn’t worth the waterbed sale, and it leads to the cinema’s greatest sequence of 2022, set in the heat of the energy crisis, when Alana pilots an ancient god-knows-how-many-ton truck – it takes her two hands to shift the beast into gear – as it rolls down the Hollywood hills, out of gas. The fast and the furious can eat her f—ing DUST.
That none of this bric-a-brac distracts from the heart of the film, the core love story, a love story tangled and winding through all the craziness – elevated for comedic effect, of course, but never to the level of absurdity – its tension rendered taut as Alana and Gary dabble in outside romantic potentialities as they try, try, try to push aside their true feelings and recognize the situation’s unavoidable taboos. Licorice Pizza is a delightful film, giddy and freewheeling, anecdotal and episodic, loosey-goosey in all the right ways. I laughed and laughed and laughed at Haim’s knotty characterization, the way she wavers wildly between ambivalence and aggression, her line-readings like bottle rockets aimed right for your eye.
Sure, Licorice Pizza feels like someone else’s nostalgia, but when you’re so immersed in its immediacy and authenticity, it’s intoxicating. Some have said it feels outside Anderson’s typical M.O. (isn’t he supposed to be a heavyweight?), but he’s definitely a master of this type of sprawling narrative, and further hones his ability to deliver potent comedy from unexpected angles. The film has a lot more in common with his later masterworks There Will Be Blood, The Master and Phantom Thread than is immediately visible – his characters frequently dabble in moral relativism, and Alana and Gary are on the sunnier end of that. And as ever, Anderson never casts judgment.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Licorice Pizza is a captivating, enchanting, roughhousing film, like few others, possibly like no other.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.