Review: Licorice Pizza

The best movies about Los Angeles—Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, Shampoo—were made in the 1970s, even if the times they depicted may have been those of another decade. (And while The Long Goodbye was set in the year it was made, 1973, its hero, Philip Marlowe, was clearly beamed in directly from the 1940s-50s.) Add to this trio Paul Thomas Anderson’s ode to his youth, Licorice Pizza, even though it was made recently. Set in the mid-1970s, mostly in the San Fernando Valley that was the de facto middle class bedroom community of L.A., it has been configured to look as if it was actually made in the 1970s, and is even more meticulous in its period production design than Anderson’s previous 70s Valley jaunt, Boogie Nights. However, the obsessive attention to detail is not a function of Anderson’s nostalgia, but rather an attempt to actually remake that milieu into an idealized version of what he remembers. Genre-wise, Licorice Pizza is a coming-of-age story in which a boy’s crush on an older woman is told the way the viewer would have hoped it turned out. It’s certainly Anderson’s most optimistic work, a pure fantasy that nonetheless feels as if it could have very well happened to someone.

An alternate title could have been A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Con Man. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a soft-bodied 15-year-old high school student living with his single mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), who gets him juvenile acting jobs in TV shows and commercials. Gary’s confidence is boundless, but not in the usual annoying way. He knows what he wants, and as the film opens what he wants is Alana Kane (Alana Haim), the 25-year-old assistant to the photographer who has come to Gary’s school to take yearbook photos. For Gary it’s love at first sight. For Alana it’s a flattering acknowledgment of her appeal at a time when she’s still struggling to make sense out of life. The movie charts their relationship, which is passionate in its own way but not physical, over the next year or so, but while Anderson also shows their development away from each other, the complementary frisson is so acute that you can’t imagine them apart. 

The movie is sustained not so much by plot, but by the spirit of adventure that infuses both personalities and which is inseparable from its 70s Valley milieu. Gary, even before he is old enough to graduate high school, moves from one scam to another with the help of his minor celebrity as a kid actor, and Anderson isn’t shy about incorporating real, albeit dead, people in the stories, including unflattering (but hilarious) portraits of Lucille Ball (Christine Ebersole) and Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper, in his most unhinged performance ever). He also includes stand-alone episodes featuring Sean Penn as a drunken, exploitive movie actor-producer and Tom Waits as a lingering, decrepit embodiment of old Hollywood deal-making. Anderson saw the Valley as the proving ground for future movie industry movers and shakers, and while he himself is now part of that community he understands that the modes of self-improvement have not changed substantially since then, but his main vehicle for explaining this is Alana, not Gary, whose ambitions are almost cartoonish. Alana, whose personality and life trajectory is based on that of the woman who plays her, Alana Haim of the rock group Haim, is the self-conscious cognate to Gary’s hustler. While Gary slides slimily from one get-rich-quick scheme to another, Alana, who has to make a living to survive, goes from waitressing to political activism without any ulterior motives. It says something that Anderson uses Haim’s real parents and sisters to play her parents and sisters in the movie. He wasn’t after artifice but rather the recreation of a dynamic that resulted in something admirable. 

Licorice Pizza is certainly Anderson’s loosest, most purely entertaining film, though some viewers may find it a bit too rangey. For sure, he doesn’t gloss over the sexism and racism inherent in the scene he depicts, and some of the characters’ worst impulses are presented as merely funny foibles. But as a love story, it feels exactly right and, yes, nostalgic for anyone who grew up in that era, when social interactions were still dependent on actual personal contact. 

Opens July 1 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

Licorice Pizza home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

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