'Licorice Pizza' Features Star-Making Performances from Its Leads

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Benny Safdie, Tom Waits, Maya Rudolph, Danielle Haim, Este Haim

BY Paul DikaPublished Dec 7, 2021

Setting can play an integral part to the success of a film. How many times has someone described a city or place as a "character in and of itself"? While that cliché is simplistic, it rings true when considering Paul Thomas Anderson and his interest in San Fernando Valley of the '70s. The director has set a number of films there (the same city in which he grew up), including his 1997 breakthrough Boogie Nights and his 2014 Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice. Anderson has been able to tell compelling stories while avoiding the risk of redundancy that comes with revisiting the same period. His latest, Licorice Pizza, goes back to that same place, but succeeds thanks to a couple of breakthrough performances, as well as Anderson's unwillingness to cave in to restorative nostalgia.

PTA's latest follows the blossoming relationship between Alana (Alana Haim of the band HAIM) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). Alana is drifting through her mid-20s, working as a photographer's assistant, and fifteen-year old Gary, a loveably mischievous kid, splits time between school and gigs as an actor. After meeting on school picture day, the two begin to spend more time together. Alana agrees to chaperone Gary on a trip to New York for a late night talk show performance, which leads to even more business endeavours. When Gary decides to start selling waterbeds (a clever hat-tip to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was Punch-Drunk Love's Mattress Man), he does so with the help of Alana, his younger brother and a group of friends. As they spend more time together, their relationship runs hot and cold, as each becomes frustrated with the other's shortcomings, and they are tempted by other crushes. And while the connection between them feels real and authentic, the relationship thrives on their emotional attraction, a dynamic PTA establishes without crossing any boundaries.

Hoffman and Haim's performances are palpable, especially considering this is the feature film debut for both actors. Both are able to harness the angst and uncertainty of their formative years, while capturing the highs and lows of navigating first love. Surely more established actors could have fit the roles, but casting such new and fresh actors brings a raw energy that meshes well with their surrounding environment.

Licorice Pizza is filled with characters based on real actors, making the film feel adjacent to Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Gary and Alana have run-ins with fictitious versions of Lucille Ball (Christine Ebersole), Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and William Holden (Sean Penn), all of whom come off as brazen, and perhaps even more self-absorbed than Hollywood's Rick Dalton. However, in Licorice Pizza, those toxic characters serve to emphasize and strengthen the connection between Gary and Alana. While Tarantino's main characters struggle to exist in that universe, Anderson is more interested in those who recognize how silly and destructive that mindset can be. As they have more of these eye-opening interactions with single-minded celebrities, they learn to appreciate the bond they have, and accept each other for who they are, warts and all.

Narcissistic tendencies aside, adults on the periphery continually fall short. The film is very funny and light, thanks to the charisma of Haim and Hoffman, but sprinkled throughout are flippant actions and words that capture the commonality of micro-transgressions in that era. Alana's boss sexually harasses her casually, Gary's mother deals with a client who speaks faux-Japanese in a crude accent, and an agent compliments Alana's "Jewish-looking nose," to name just a few examples. Despite the toxicity, the film remains buoyant because of Haim and Hoffman's ability to totally disregard these people and accept where they are in life, no matter how aimless they may feel. At the very least, they have one other.

Anderson even goes as far to reference the oil ban and subsequent gas shortage from 1973, to inject more context into Gary and Alana's relationship. When Gary falls out of favour with Alana, it's usually due to his immaturity. But when Alana tries to insert more meaning into her life by getting involved in local politics, she quickly discovers those more "mature" individuals are perhaps even more flawed than Gary and his group of friends. Despite the uncertainty and chaos around them, they take solace in knowing that they are experiencing it together.

On the surface, Licorice Pizza may feel familiar, but Anderson delivers a film that looks to the past responsibly. He uses the chemistry and energy between Hoffman and Haim to anchor the film rather than pander to an audience with restorative nostalgia. The two actors bring a raw energy that propels this coming-of-age journey in an extremely infectious and intriguing manner. If the rest of Anderson's films take place in 1970's LA, that would be completely fine; he'll surely find a way to make it compelling.

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