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Review: Licorice Pizza

January 13, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza opens with a tracking shot through a high school that introduces us to its two protagonists; the 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and the 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim).

It’s picture day. Gary is a child actor who is there to get his photo taken. Alana is helping with the photoshoot. He asks her out to dinner at the establishment that he frequents. She tells him he’s a kid. They banter back and forth like this for a couple of minutes, and the film’s two leads, a pair of screen newcomers who both deliver star-making turns, make it a joy to watch.

This is the setup for Licorice Pizza, a delightful coming of age story that takes us back to California’s San Fernando Valley in the year 1973, and could best be described as a hangout movie in the same vein as American Graffiti or Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (and its “spiritual sequel” Everybody Wants Some!!). It doesn’t have much of a plot, per se, but that’s okay, especially since we are in the hands of a master like Anderson behind the camera, and in the company of two effervescent leads.

Gary is a cocky, over-confident kid who oscillates between seeming like a naive teen boy and a thirty year old car salesman who is always after his next business venture. Alana is a wayward, immature adult who is weirdly flattered by his attention, and starts hanging out with him against her better judgement. Gary discovers waterbeds and strikes a deal to start selling them to celebrities, hooking Alana into his latest get rich quick scheme. The film unfolds through a series of vignettes like this that range from comic to serious, as Gary and Alana’s misadventures allow them to bump into a variety of real life figures and characters inspired by real people.

Gary’s claim to fame is his supporting role in a fictitious family comedy called Under One Roof. In one early sequence, Gary travels to New York with Alana as his chaperone so that he can perform on an Ed Sullivan-inspired variety show with the lead actress Lucille Doolittle (Christine Ebersole), an obvious stand-in for Lucille Ball. It’s worth noting that Licorice Pizza is loosely based on the life of producer and former child actor Gary Goetzman, who starred with Ball in Yours, Mine and Ours, which also happens to be the name of the song the Lucy stand-in performs in the film.

Goetzman, a friend of Anderson’s, really did have his own waterbed business, and even sold one to film producer Jon Peters. An extreme version of Peters is portrayed here by Bradley Cooper, who damn near steals the movie with his brief but memorable supporting role. The cast is rounded out by appearances from a number of familiar faces, including Sean Penn as a movie star inspired by William Holden, and Tom Waits as a film director. One of the film’s most thematically rich subplots involves the mayoral run of closeted councilman Joel Wachs, a real life politician portrayed here by Benny Safdie, who shares a devastating scene with actor Joseph Cross.

Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman whom Anderson directed to some of his best performances, has a major screen presence in what is remarkably his first onscreen role, bringing the right mix of swagger and boyish charm to his portrayal of Gary. Alana Haim, youngest of the three sisters who make up the indie rock band HAIM (who all have cameos here, along with their real life parents), is a complete natural onscreen, effortlessly making the switch from singer to actress.

I do feel compelled to address the elephant in the room, which is the social media controversy that has blown up over the sizeable age gap between the film’s two leads. Yes, it would clearly be inappropriate for a 15-year-old and a 25-year-old to be together in real life. But Gary and Alana’s relationship (if you can even call it that) in the movie is not sexual, and what happens is honestly pretty chaste.

I can respect that the age gap might make some viewers uncomfortable. But the feverish discourse around the film is a bit much, especially considering that it’s basically about a precocious teen with a crush on an immature older woman, who is kinda flattered by the attention and becomes friends with him. It feels Rushmore-esque, with Gary reminiscent of a more grounded version of that film’s wiser than his years protagonist Max Fisher. Anything that happens here seems purely like wish-fulfillment fantasy shown from the perspective of a teenager.

What works so well about Licorice Pizza is the vibe that Anderson captures. The film unfolds through free-flowing long takes starting with that wonderful opening tracking shot, with Anderson once again acting as his own director of photography following Phantom Thread (this time sharing the credit with Michael Bauman). The camerawork is matched by an excellent soundtrack of classic songs from the era that provide an evocative backdrop to the film, tied together by Jonny Greenwood’s wistful score.

I don’t really know how else to say it, but there is a floaty, walking on a cloud feeling that I got from watching Licorice Pizza. I loved the laid back ‘70s vibe of the piece, which not only captures a youthful sense of adventure and endless possibilities, but also a bittersweet nostalgia for the past. The film clocks in at a breezy 133 minutes, and it’s just so enjoyable getting to exist in this world for a couple of hours that I honestly could have watched it for even longer than that.

Licorice Pizza is now playing in theatres where they are open. I was lucky enough to see it at in 70mm at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto just before the current theatre shutdown in Ontario.

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