It’s hard to believe that acclaimed writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson is capable of such a lighthearted romp through the streets of Sherman Oaks in the 1970s. But that’s exactly what “Licorice Pizza” is. A laugh out loud but introspective look at young love in a beloved city. It is a lot of things all rolled into one, and PTA’s skills with the quill and direction perfection make a story that would otherwise crumble in any other filmmakers hand work. It is about nothing and everything all at the same time. A treat for fans of the filmmaker’s work, but also the most accessible film he’s made so far. It is funny, complex, outrageous, sad, strange and real all at the same time, and somehow none of these conflicting emotions ever feel like any one of them is being undercut. “Licorice Pizza” is one of the most fun and enjoyable films of the year, solidifying PTA’s ranking as a once in a generation filmmaker while also delivering a damn good time at the movies.
Paul Thomas Anderson adds yet another self written/directed film to his extensive filmography, with “Licorice Pizza” starring newcomers Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman (son of the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman), along with a long list of recurring stars PTA is fond of working with. He reunites with Johnny Greenwood for the music (who has scored a number of PTA films like “Phantom Thread” and “There Will Be Blood“), and partners with Michael Bauman for the cinematography.
The film is a coming of age dramedy that follows Gary Valentine (Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Haim) as they navigate their entrance into adulthood in Sherman Oaks in the 1970s. It’s best that you know as little as possible about the plot, as the film is more about the shared experiences of our young protagonists than what they actually do. “Licorice Pizza” is very much an ode to Sherman Oaks and Hollywood during a special era in PTA’s life, and our characters and the events that shape their young love and life are merely catalysts for their development rather than any kind of notable, singular event.
“Licorice Pizza” is a very much a hang out movie, predicated on our investment in the main characters and their chemistry and not so much about the events that they are experiencing. This is really important to note, because there can be a sense of “nothing is happening here” if you’re not hip to what’s going on below the surface. It is clearly Paul Thomas Anderson’s response to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” in that its primary function is to recreate a period in time that is meaningful to the creator above telling a linear story. This is stunning and visually vibrant; recreating and reimagining a world long lost to time with damn near perfection. It’s like watching Quentin Tarantino tackle a period piece without the hyper violence, feet, and desperate need to say the N word. “Licorice Pizza” is absolutely beautiful in the atmosphere it creates, with every setting, set piece and street acting more like a character in the story than a background.
The film is alive, buzzing with fond memories and familiar places that feel like PTA is longing for a time he desperately misses. The world he builds is wholly unique yet perfectly recreated, and the attention to detail in the production design truly transports you to a different time in Los Angeles and the Valley. I was lucky enough to see it in 70mm, which only lends itself to making “Licorice Pizza” feel like a film ripped straight from 1973. Paul Thomas Anderson once again explores human connection and purpose with masterful craftsmanship, somehow including all of the downer notes you would come to expect but disguised under a laugh out loud, touching coming of age story that celebrates young love instead of mocks it. Anderson just may be a genius in that he captures every single facet of first love; the joy, the sorrow, the complexity, the silliness and the earnestness that has probably defined most of us when we really think about it. It is so beautiful and funny, you’d be hard press to think that same guy that made “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood” made “Licorice Pizza.”
Of course, none of this works if we aren’t wholly invested in the films stars. Hoffman and Haim are absolutely incredible here, and sell the absurdity and seemingly listlessness of the film’s premise almost instantly. From the moment they meet, there is an undeniable chemistry, and we are put on notice that we are about to watch something every special transpire between these two leads. “Licorice Pizza” simply doesn’t work without them, and there is always the danger of them being overshadowed by the surrounding, powerhouse actors that show up along the journey of their lives. Luckily, both Hoffman and Haim not only hold their own- the straight carry the film on their backs with ease. Yes, they even manage to sell the age gap between them, with Hoffman’s Gary being 15 and Haim’s Alana being 25 years old.
Reading that you would “Licorice Pizza” is a celebration of underaged relationships, but it’s not. Paul Thomas Anderson is a very smart guy, and he is acutely aware of how dangerous this very premise can and should be. He is clever enough to never make an assertion or judgement either way, and part of the joy of “Licorice Pizza” is watching our two leads develop and grow together. I truthfully don’t think I could say that about any other film that has tried to pull this off, and it takes the full trio to make it make sense and feel right. By contrast, look at something like “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” that went out of its way to justify an underaged relationship that didn’t need to exist in the first place. It was grotesque and unnecessary, and seemed to come from Bay’s own need to justify age gaps more than anything being pertinent to the story. I can’t really express why “Licorice Pizza” is so different from that. But it is. It just simply isn’t the same, and the trio of Hoffman, Haim, and Anderson allow us to be ok with it all.
Maybe it’s because it is as much as celebration of a different time as it is an exploration of human connection and young love without shying away from all of the complexities that come with it. “Licorice Pizza” isn’t out to recreate a Hallmark movie. The focus of the film isn’t about whether or not Gary gets the girl. It is truly about the experience they share both together and apart, as each one of them grow together and separately, and that growth defines who they become in the end. It is such a fun journey, littered with wild performances that are exaggerations of real people. There are a lot of them that include Sean Penn, Tom Waites, Maya Rudolph, and Bradley Cooper, to name a few. There’s even some uncredited appearances of Anderson’s long time collaborators, and feels like a PTA meta easter egg for fans of his work if they know what to look for.
Bradley Cooper is probably having the most fun, playing an exaggerated version of the infamous producer John Peters. Apparently, Anderson asked the real Peters to use his likeness in “Licorice Pizza,” and while he gave his blessing I highly doubt Anderson’s portrayal was what he had in mind. This has nothing to do with the film overall but I just kind of have to get this out there: I hate how good Cooper is. He just has a face I want to punch, and there’s a smugness about him that screams Hollywood garbage. It’s not true and I know that, but every time I feel the urge to write him off, he pops up in something like “Licorice Pizza” and damn near hijacks the entire film with his limited screen time. He’s really that good, and I don’t know why it bothers me, but it does. He’s absolutely phenomenal here despite his appearance being a little more than a cameo than a key player.
“Licorice Pizza” is filmmaking at its finest, and I can’t stress enough how much I enjoy the softer side of Anderson. I love his weighty, almost too pretentious for its own good filmmaking, but it is nice to watch him let loose and show us all that he is capable of good emotions, too. He’s not just some tortured artist who can’t help but see the worst in humanity. “Licorice Pizza” is proof that he too loves, laughs, and is capable of joy. All of which is front and center in this latest outing. The film is really funny and fun, and even when it gets complex and high minded and borderline existential, the leads are so charismatic and mesmerizing we don’t even care about the messages the film is trying to convey. We are wholly invested in their lives and their journey of growing up, and that makes “Licorice Pizza” one of the best films of the year.
This is not a blockbuster and there really isn’t a lot that happens. “Licorice Pizza” asks you to sit back and enjoy the journey of someone else’s life that may or may not resemble your own. It’s important to know this, because it can be very tempting to get to the end of film and ask yourself “What the fuck did I just watch?” We are programmed to expect a beginning, middle and end as well as instant gratification and satisfaction in films. “Licorice Pizza” is the antithesis to the Marvel machine, and demands the audience pay attention and enjoy the ride instead of being wrapped up in the destination. This is a welcomed departure, and something I didn’t know I was missing until I watched “Licorice Pizza.”
You should absolutely watch this film. “Licorice Pizza” is reminder of why we love films, and why we are willing to invest in the stories of others. Side Note: it DOES has more running than a Tom Cruise film, so ya know, just be aware of that. Check for it at a local movie theater near you.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to google what happened to waterbeds.