- Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
- Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
- Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie
The San Fernando valley in the 1970s is the setting of Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout hit, Boogie Nights. For his latest original creation, he returns to the time and setting to tell a coming-of-age tale that transcends the genre’s familiar trappings. Anderson is at his best when exploring the inner workings of his protagonists – usually grown men – as they’re thrust into situations that upend their rigidly-focused lives. And while he’s dipped his toes into the romantic comedy genre in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, that film was ultimately about a neurotically isolated man as he accepts a new possibility for himself. Licorice Pizza concerns itself with the feeling of young love, and about discovering the difficulties of figuring out the rest of your life when you’re still so young.
Anderson is one of the bets filmmakers working today at mining unexpectedly great performances from actors working outside their normal comfort zones. Punch-Drunk Love showed the world that Adam Sandler was an immensely talented actor. Boogie Nights showed a softer side to Mark Wahlberg’s “tough-guy” persona. Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, the stars of Licorice Pizza, are both performing in their first film roles, and Anderson’s faith in them pays off beautifully. Hoffman, the son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who appeared in five of Anderson’s films, seems to have inherited his father’s gift for dramatic empathy and charisma. And Alana Haim, better known as part of the band with her sisters – of which Anderson has directed several music videos for – gives one of the best performances of the year, while still clearly having fun in the process.
The film presents two perspectives on growing up, told from differing ages and experiences: one from Gary Valentine (Hoffman), a child actor in high school who moves from one hustle to the next, and one from Alana Kane (Haim), an aimless twenty-something who attaches herself to him. When the film begins, Gary instantly goes out of his way to charm Alana, despite their age difference. Why does he feel such a magnetic pull towards her right off the bat? Because he’s a charismatic teenage boy, and she’s a pretty girl.
Though Alana rightfully turns down any romantic entanglements with Gary, it’s clear she sees something in him that has been sorely missing from her own life: a boundless ambition. Gary views the world as an endless chance for opportunities, no matter how ludicrous or ill-fated they can be. Virtually any other filmmaker would have crammed in outside roadblocks to prevent Gary and Alana from being together, but Anderson cares more about exploring their inner lives than in some cheap short-lived payoff. The film expertly evokes a sense of love and longing, including a fantastic wordless sequence on a waterbed, that called to mind the films of Wong Kar-Wai.
Gary’s first venture is the burgeoning waterbed industry, and he quickly sets up a storefront and hires his friends and 8-year old brother. Meanwhile, Alana tries her hand at showbiz and is introduced to Jack Holden (Sean Penn), a self-absorbed actor loosely based on William Holden. Throughout all of this, Alana and Gary perform a back-and-forth game of jealousy and attraction as they refuse to admit their feelings for one another.
But Anderson’s expert screenplay also subtly highlights the inanity of the adults in the world that they encounter. In one of the movie’s funniest sequences, the gang encounters Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), a maniacal Hollywood producer whose (real-life) claim to fame is dating Barbra Streisand. This leads Alana to re-evaluate her friendship with someone who’s more content to bounce around from one thing to the next, without fear of consequence. She gets involved in a local politician’s campaign and soon realizes that even someone with a clear vision for the future is just better at covering up their flaws.
Paul Thomas Anderson has always been a proponent for old-school filmmaking and storytelling, and Licorice Pizza is full of his signature visual style. He serves as a co-cinematographer here, with Michael Bauman, and the film evokes its time period just in the look alone. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city where the film is shown in 70mm, you won’t be disappointed.
While Licorice Pizza may not rank at or near the top of Anderson’s best films, it’s only because the director has made some of the most staggering works of the 21st century. Most directors would love to have a fourth or fifth best film as great as this. The film’s script never conforms to conventions of any major film genre; at no point did I know what the next scene would hold. Nor did I care: Anderson had me fully enveloped in this world and its richly-conceived characters.
The film is imbued with just enough specific details that show he has great affection for this place and time. Indeed, we never even see or hear the famous local record store that gives the film its title. Though the minute period details work with the overarching story, the Gary-Alana elements are timeless and sweet. Hoffman and Haim brim with familiarity, their chemistry effortlessly oozing off the screen from the moment she catches his eye. Romantic comedies have been in dire straits of late, but Licorice Pizza presents itself as a dazzling, smart way to approach the genre, no doubt because of the brilliant talent on and off the screen.
Licorice Pizza is in select theaters now and premieres nationwide on December 25.
- Though he has yet to personally win an Oscar, the Academy has showered PTA with awards recognition, often in the Screenplay, Directing, and Best Picture categories. Expect the same here again.
- In fact, Licorice Pizza is currently the favorite to win Best Original Screenplay. That the film is littered with Hollywood references certainly won’t hurt his chances
- Anderson reunites with another frequent collaborator, as Jonny Greenwood composes the score. This score isn’t as memorable (but still no less effective in setting the mood), and Greenwood is more likely to be nominated for his other stellar work this year, in Spencer and/or The Power of the Dog.
- Though Anderson and Bauman’s cinematography is fantastic, this field is too crowded to crack the list of nominees. Expect it to be on the shortlist, but not the final cut.
- In a perfect world, Alana Haim would compete with Kristen Stewart and Jessica Chastain for Best Actress, but don’t be surprised when her name isn’t called on nomination morning, if only because of the tight competition from more established actresses. Hopefully this film provides a springboard for her to get more and more roles that are worthy of her talents (though I wouldn’t complain if she only worked with PTA going forward either).