Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest sees him returning to the world of the nostalgic 70s. But where past films of his have held a certain grit or even darkness, Licorice Pizza is dreamy and welcoming. This is one of those films that’s arguably more about feeling – or vibes as some would put it – than it is about plot. But the feelings it radiates are utterly engrossing.
Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a frequent collaborator with many of Anderson’s previous films, plays Gary Valentine. He’s a swave and optimistic 15-year-old actor with grand plans for success. He meets 25-year-old photography assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim) at a high school photo shoot and is instantly smitten. Although Alana rejects his advances due to their age difference, the two nonetheless strike up some sort of collaboration – part friendship, part business partners. From there, the two partake in a number of schemes around 1973’s San Fernando Valley. Life lessons and much personal growth ensue.
The term Licorice Pizza is slang for 70s vinyl, yet it was also the name of a record chain store that Anderson frequented. That romantic reflection on a lost past personifies this film, but, appropriately enough, music plays a big part in this film’s identity too. Jonny Greenwood has had a banner year, having composed scores for Spencer and The Power of the Dog as well. His score in Licorice Pizza navigates the everchanging, often chaotic, world of the film with deft confidence. It matches both the numerous routes Alana and Gary end up taking together in their endeavours, and the tonal shifts that the film navigates dexterously.
It creates a homely feel to the film – one that dances on the line between a tough reality and a vibrant dream. Licorice Pizza is a homage to the dazzling eccentricities of its time period, something that can be seen through Gary’s vivacious persona, the plot’s numerous sequences that teeter between absurdist humour and bittersweet nostalgia, and the colourful cinematography that feels both surreal and oddly intimate. Yet it is also an observant commentary on the strife of youth, particularly those either on the edge of adulthood or those who feel lost within adulthood’s often terrifying grip.
The character work feeds into this commentary wonderfully. Alana and Gary are incredibly fascinating people, both individually and as a duo. They come from completely different worlds – one being a teenager with grand ambitions and the other a mid-20s woman who feels somewhat lost. Although the possibilities are endless, a philosophy that Gary abides by, possibilities and reality can sometimes be foes. Yet these two find a level of comfort in each other despite their numerous differences, their age most notably. Both have compelling character arcs, with Gary’s perhaps being one on realising the harm of indulgent male fantasies. But it is Alana who is front and centre as her interactions with both Gary’s jovial ambitions and with the wider world around her create a kinetic and heartfelt story that isn’t so much coming of age as it is self-discovery. It’s about trying out different jobs and styles in order to find what works for you. That makes this film rather warm and playful.
Licorice Pizza is a love story in a sense – although it should be noted that the companionship between Alana and Gary is kept chaste throughout the film’s runtime. It’s evoking love for the 70s time period, a time that Anderson clearly remembers fondly, through its music, cinematography, historical and political nods, and even bizarre callbacks to notable figures within the timer period, including cameos by Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper as fictionalised versions of William Holden and John H. Peters. Yet it is ultimately a story of friendship and how connection is what allows us to survive in a world that is sometimes strange, sometimes dark and sometimes overwhelming. It is an ever-changing environment, and the film is appropriately ever-changing too, be it in its tone or its set-pieces.
What anchors this otherwise hypnotically chaotic spectacle are the lead performances from newcomers Cooper Hoffman and particularly Alana Haim. Hoffman has all the screen presence of his father before him, yet has an energised giddiness that is wholly his own. He’s charismatic, funny, and terrifically subdued when the script demands it of him. But it is Haim who steals the show here with her natural presence and impeccable range. A member of the band Haim, which comprises of her and her sisters Este and Danielle – both of whom appear in the film with their parents as Alana’s family – Haim displays an instinctive gift for acting that leaves audiences completely transfixed on her and the multiple layers of comedy and tragedy she incorporates into her performance. Able to go from hilarious and confident to vulnerable and sombre within moments of each other, Haim has all the makings of the next big movie star.
Licorice Pizza proves an aptly named film. It’s a title that captures both the hallucinogenic nostalgia of the film’s visual and musical prowess, and the bizarre nature of its story and setting. Yet the film is so much more than its title. While not entirely free of the anxieties that permeate previous Anderson films like Inherent Vice or Magnolia, it is much more relaxing and happy-go-lucky by comparison. It’s an exuberant, spirited and heartfelt work of cinema that’s strangely funny and touchingly sentimental. Although its title may not be in reference to an actual pizza, I’ll happily have another slice anyday.
Licorice Pizza is in cinemas January 1st 2022
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie
Runtime: 133 minutes