Licorice Pizza

When Gary Valentine (newcomer Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour) catches sight of his high school yearbook photographer’s assistant Alana Kane (newcomer Alana Haim), he asks her out to dinner.  Alana, in her early twenties, is astonished by this teenager’s chutzpah, then equally astonished that she actually shows up at the Tail ‘o the Cock restaurant where Gary is, apparently, a regular.  When child actor Gary realizes his career is over, he becomes surprisingly successful with diverse entrepreneurial endeavors, keeping the aimless Alana by his side by becoming her boss in “Licorice Pizza.”

Laura's Review: B+

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights," "The Phantom Thread") has created adelightful, loosey goosey romantic comedy based on the childhood misadventures of his friend, Hollywood producer Gary Goetzman, and his own experiences growing up in the San Fernando Valley.  Anyone concerned about the age difference of this romantic couple should note that the film takes place over the course of a couple of years and while the attraction is obvious, it is mostly chaste.  “Licorice Pizza” (the title comes from an area record store chain of the time, although it is not mentioned in the film) charts soul mates navigating the awkward circumstance of a ten year age gap when one is statutory bait set against the very different times of the 1970’s.

The supremely confident Gary has just starred in "Under One Roof" (referring to “Yours, Mine and Ours” – the film mixes real people and events with slightly modified versions), but he requires a chaperone to accompany him to a NYC promotional gig and his single mother cannot go.  Alana’s thrilled to be asked to go on a free cross country trip, but Gary, whose lewd double entendre during a group interview infuriates Lucy Doolittle (Christine Ebersole as a thinly disguised Lucille Ball), has overplayed his hand as Alana begins dating his older costar Lance Brannigan (Skylar Gisondo).  Throughout the course of the film, this dynamic will swing back and forth, Alana disgruntled when Gary shows interest in a girl his own age.  And yet these two’s support for one another is rock solid, Anderson displaying each one’s concern in a series of scenes that has one running to the other’s rescue.

The film is episodic, jumping across varying lengths of time.  Back in California, Gary gets a booth at a Teen Pop expo, but is arrested for murder in a case of mistaken identify (watch for John C. Reilly as Herman Munster).  He gets Alana an interview with his agent (Harriet Sansom Harris, TV's 'Desperate Housewives,' in the film’s funniest supporting turn), which eventually ends up with her being courted by Jack Holden (Sean Penn, doing a surprisingly good take on William Holden) at that same Tail ‘o the Cock, Gary smoldering with fury in another booth.  But when director Rex Blau (Tom Waits) cooks up a weird motorcycle stunt at an adjacent golf course, Gary’s there when Alana flies off the back of Jack’s bike.  Alana will work for Gary’s booming waterbed business, culminating in an outrageous run-in with coked up customer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and driving backwards down a narrow, twisty road in a manual shift moving van (Haim actually did most of this!).

While Gary and Alana are ten years apart in age, their emotional maturity is about equal, so it is telling that their paths diverge after Alana witnesses Gary and his buddies pantomiming sex acts with a gas can, an uncharacteristic lapse into juvenile behavior.  She volunteers for mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) while Gary transforms his waterbed store, his business deep-sixed by the gasoline crisis, into a pinball arcade.  Alana thrills to an invitation to join Joel for drinks, only to learn something hidden about his private life, and, in comforting his bereft lover, finds insight into her own love life.

“Licorice Pizza” is a humorous and loving look at a very particular time and place, one that is distinctly politically incorrect (Gary’s PR client, Asian restaurateur Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), competes with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” Mickey Rooney in indulging in cringe worthy Asian stereotypes while Gary’s agent calls Alana an ‘English pit bull with sex appeal and a very Jewish nose’).  The clothes, the cars, and the businesses will give boomers a real nostalgia trip, the production meticulously crafted.  Anderson, who’s directed a number of music videos for Alana and her sisters’ band Haim (her whole family is cast here as her family), has taken a big leap of faith resting his film on the shoulders of two unknowns and it’s paid off in spades.  Hoffman’s open geniality and confidence make it perfectly plausible that he’d attract an older woman despite his pimples.  Haim makes her character’s flightiness appealing, her fits of exasperation amusing in her utterly natural debut.  “Licorice Pizza” may not be as tightly tuned as Anderson’s best works, but even while he’s having fun, the filmmaker exhibits a deep understanding of human nature.

Robin's Review: B

MGM/UA opens "Licorice Pizza" in select theaters on 11/14/21 and 12/17/21 before opening wide on Christmas Day.