Film Reviews

Licorice Pizza

Published January 6, 2022
Licorice Pizza.. a runaway success

There are eagerly anticipated movies that turn out to be duds, and movies such as Licorice Pizza, which are better than might ever have been suspected. The duds are far more common, so when a film of real quality turns up one feels like cheering.

Many believe Paul Thomas Anderson (b.1970) to be America’s greatest living director, and his record speaks for itself. Licorice Pizza is Anderson’s ninth feature since 1996, and his first since the acclaimed Phantom Thread in 2017. His films have been very different in tone and subject matter, while displaying the same meticulous craftsmanship. They are as layered, as dense in references, as any arthouse production, but also succeed as popular entertainment.

Anderson is a skilful storyteller who never lingers too long on a scene, or strives for profundity. His characters never seem to say too much or too little. The camera never hangs around longer than strictly necessary. He leaves the viewer with just enough work to stay engaged, but never so much that it becomes a burden.

The pre-publicity for Licorice Pizza tells us this is Anderson’s most “relaxed” movie yet, which means his most personal. Set in the suburbs of Los Angeles in 1973, it tells the story of a 15-year-old entrepreneur, named Gary Valentine, played by Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was one of Anderson’s favourite actors.

His co-star is Alana Haim, who plays Alana Kane, a 25-year-old girl whom Gary decides is the love of his life. As with Cooper Hoffman, this is Haim’s screen debut. She is known as a singer and multi-intrumentalist with the Californian pop band, Haim, which consists of Alana, and her two older sisters, Danielle and Este. Both sisters, along with the Haims’ mother and father, are featured in this film, virtually playing themselves. Cooper’s two small sisters, Tallulah and Willa, also play small roles.

Although Licorice Pizza is really a double-hander, in which Gary and Alana, two relative unknowns, dominate every scene, the movie is notable for an all-star support cast. Sean Penn plays Jack Holden, a thinly disguised version of an aging, delusional William Holden; Bradley Cooper is Jon Peters, the notorious celebrity hairdresser turned Hollywood producer, who dated Barbra Streisand (and was recently married to Pamela Anderson for 12 hours!). Both Penn and Cooper put in bravura, show-stealing performances, as men unhinged by their immersion in the film industry.

If you’re looking for John C. Reilly, he’s the one in Herman Munster make-up, who has one line. You might also keep an eye out for Steven Spielberg’s daughter, Sasha, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s dad, George.

There’s never been a film about Hollywood that domesticates and debunks the dream factory so adroitly. The cast is made up of people who have spent their lives within this milieu, which has its own, unique kind of normal. Anderson himself is a product of this world and these folks are his tribe. The movie itself is named after a chain of Southern California record stores that flourished in the 70s.

When Gary first meets Alana she is working for a photo business taking pictures of high school students. He tries out his best chat-up lines, while she hoots and sneers at him, reminding him she’s 25, while he’s only a kid. “You’re twelve!” she says. “Fifteen!” he fires back.

Part of Gary’s banter concerns his acting career. He’s already had bit parts in a range of movies and TV shows, and sees himself as a natural “showman”. Alana is not impressed by Gary’s boasting, although she is secretly charmed by his chutzpah. Against her better judgement, she meets him for a drink later that evening (two Cokes), although she continues to pour scorn on his romantic verbiage.

As we see during a memorable episode in which Alana flies to New York as Gary’s chaperone for a TV event, this “showman” is not much of an actor. He is, however, a born hustler, with a sharp eye for a money-making opportunity. Gary’s first business venture sees him set up a mail-order franchise, then a shop, selling waterbeds. Nothing be more 70s, apart from maybe Jon Peters’s all-white open neck dress shirt and flared trousers. When the oil crisis impacts the waterbed market, Gary will move on to pinball machines, which have been newly legalised in L.A.

I won’t dwell on the twists of a plot which proceeds episodically, but always in one direction: towards the gradual coming-together of Gary and Alana despite all the obstacles in their way. Chief among these is Alana’s knowing she is ten years older than Gary, an age gap that seems to render their relationship embarrassing and ridiculous.

As the point-of-view flips, from Gary to Alana and back again, we can chart their growing attachment. When Gary gives Alana advice on how to be an actor, she displays a talent that leaves him for dead. When it comes to business, Alana is the practical voice that reins in Gary’s grandiose schemes. He has the ambition, she has the competence. They’re a natural combo, each of them eaten up with jealousy when they see the other with another boy or girl.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this story is the naturalness of these first-time actors. Neither of them have the plastic good looks so prevalent in American movies. Gary, pimply and pudgy, is not flattered by the fashions of the day, but he has a perpetual twinkle in his eye. Alana is no great beauty either, but in this film she is treated as a universal object of desire. It’s not only Gary who finds her “hot”, it’s every male she encounters, although she is frugal with her favours. Sex is the ever-present subtext in this story, but it never actually materialises.

Jonny Greenwood has provided the score and presumably the choice of pop songs, which resonate throughout the film, adding a kind of subliminal chorus to the constant, low-level satire about Hollywood – a satire brimming with affection. I’m still thinking of the opening guitar flourish in Wings’ Let Me Roll It, and Jim Morrison intoning “Blood in the streets of the town of New Haven” in the Doors’ Peace Frog. These are songs you might not have heard in a long time – they crackle like jolts of electricity in this rambling tale of misguided love.

At well over two hours, Licorice Pizza is long movie but it wouldn’t have mattered if it were eight hours. I could have watched it all night.



Licorice Pizza

Written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Cooper Hoffmann, Alana Hain, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Skyler Gisondo, Este Haim, Danielle Haim, Nate Mann

USA, rated M, 134 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 8 January, 2022