Well, well, when I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I did not expect to have good things to say about Licorice Pizza at all. This is one of the most hyped films of the year, and by the time I get around to seeing a film like this, the hype factor has undoubtedly had a negative effect on my overall perception of what I’m watching, and that’s never the fault of the film itself, it’s just a thing that happens when there’s a limited release. I also don’t like all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. However, when he hits for me, he really hits.
Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is an aspiring 15-year-old actor who meets and falls for the older Alana (Alana Haim), an adrift, emotionally stunted 20-something photographer who is still trying to figure out her life. We follow the duo’s misadventures in southern California in the early 1970s, as he starts a few businesses and she becomes interested in politics. Eventually the two must confront what they mean to each other, and what their relationship is.
Licorice Pizza is a meandering hangout movie with a lot on its mind. I think this central relationship avoids the ick factor of the age gap because it’s not easy to pin down what these two really are to each other. They’re friends, sometimes more than that, but also it’s impossible to picture a reality where the two actually go for it as a couple, because they’re ultimately too similar. I think this relationship is more complicated and interesting than your standard romantic comedy. There’s elements of that here, but Licorice Pizza ultimately succeeds because it’s working in a very specific gray area.
I think there’s an inescapable charm and lightness to this movie that doesn’t feel reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous works at all. And yet, there’s also a lurking sense of danger around every street corner that keeps the viewer on edge throughout, from interactions with Sean Penn’s Jack Holden (based on actor William Holden), and Bradley Cooper’s Jon Peters, who is painted as a full-on sociopath. There’s an overwhelming feeling of this could all go horribly wrong at any moment, and that definitely kept me on the edge of my seat.
Alana Haim is a total movie star, full stop, and Cooper Hoffman is a good foil, but his performance never leaps off the screen like hers does. It is worth noting that this is the acting debut for both leads, and they create something really special together. Haim, from the indie rock band Haim, where she plays some fantastic music with her sisters (who also appear in this film), and Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has a screen presence that feels completely different from his father’s. Haim has an impeccable comic timing, and she’s every bit as good in the scenes that require more of her emotionally. She crafts a very specific, nuanced and very fascinating character and this is a remarkably assured debut performance. I hope Haim continues to explore acting projects, because she’s too great to be a one-off.
At one point I checked my watch and realized Licorice Pizza was almost over and I became so sad. I would’ve liked to live in this world a little longer. Also, I’d planned Licorice Pizza as the first half of a double bill at the movies today but I decided to skip my second movie because I just wanted to sit with what I’d just seen a little while longer before I moved onto something else. It’s a long-ish movie, running at over two hours, but it totally flies by. Maybe this would have benefitted from being a miniseries instead of a feature-length film, but the amount of plot is never the issue here. Licorice Pizza is decidedly light on plot – it’s a slice of life coming of age movie. But it’s more about the execution and how the movie treats its subject. You just want to live forever in this gauzy 70s LA that feels so much like a warm memory. It’s heartfelt and cynical, it’s got a lot of soul but also a lot of bite. It’s romantic but also doesn’t have its head in the clouds. It manages to achieve a very specific tone, and it’s kind of extraordinary.
This is a film where the people who love it are really going to love it, but it won’t work for everybody. And that’s okay. Personally I can’t wait to see it again. I can’t believe Paul Thomas Anderson could manage a coming-of-age film at this point in his career and pull it off this well. Licorice Pizza is warm, truthful and unforgettable. I think it’s one of the best movies of the year. It might not totally be your jam, but at least see it for Alana Haim. You’ll be hearing her name a lot in the future.