‘Licorice Pizza’ serves up glowing nostalgia and feelings

Director Paul Thomas Anderson scores again with his playful new film

Brad Keefe
"Licorice Pizza"

I’m hitting pause on my planned top 10 films of 2021 list this week, because a) like a test I’m cramming for, I need to check off a few more contenders first and b) there’s one movie on it I need to write more than a blurb about.

Any Paul Thomas Anderson movie is going to be an event movie for me, but a work conflict caused me to miss an early screening of “Licorice Pizza” — an error I corrected in a near-empty theater on Christmas Eve. It was an early present to me.

PTA movies are an event because he seldom makes the same film twice. His signature is there, but it’s not as glaringly obvious as some of his contemporaries, such as Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson. If you removed the opening credits, you’d have a hard time believing that “Boogie Nights” and “The Phantom Thread” were the work of the same filmmaker.

“Licorice Pizza” is a throwback to Anderson’s early work, a more personal, more episodic pie served in slices. It’s not even really the movie you’d expect from the trailer. It’s a movie that contains falling in love, but it’s hardly just a love story.

The provided description of the film is suitably broad and vague: “Alana Kane and Gary Valentine grow up, run around and fall in love in California's San Fernando Valley in the 1970s.”

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We first see Gary (Cooper Hoffman) combing his very ’70s coif in a high-school bathroom, a bit of a visual misdirect which points to this being just another movie about that awkwardness of being a teenager. Instead, when Gary first locks eyes with Alana (Alana Haim), a photographer’s assistant for school picture day, he shows up with unexpected self-confidence that’s somehow refreshingly non-toxic and unsmarmy.

Fifteen-year-old Gary shoots his shot with all the confidence of two kids in a trenchcoat trying to sneak into an R-rated movie, asking Alana to dinner. She directly rebuffs his puppy-dog-eyes act, because, duh, he’s a kid.

Alana is also at a muted and unsure point of maturing, living at home at age 25 with parents and sisters — played delightfully by Haim’s real parents and her sisters (and bandmates in Haim).

Gary’s confidence stems from his career as a child actor, but he’s looking to diversify as he settles into a professional partnership with Alana, the two launching a waterbed business. This actually takes up a lot more of the movie than the trailer would indicate, and it’s far more endearing and interesting than it sounds.

“Licorice Pizza” is a playful and nostalgic chapter in Anderson’s loose “trilogy” set in 1970s SoCal, joining “Boogie Nights” and his Thomas Pynchon novel adaptation “Inherent Vice.”

Like those movies, “Pizza” serves some of its most memorable moments in the tangents. It’s a bit overlong at 2 hours and 13 minutes, but I wouldn’t want to see much of this on the cutting room floor (with a couple of notable exceptions). Sometimes great moments on screen don’t have to serve the story. 

Here, that story has a looseness that feels like even Anderson doesn’t know where it’s going next, and that’s actually not a bad thing.

Anderson wrote the screenplay based on his own experiences growing up and stories from his friend, Gary Goetzman, who was a child actor. California during the Nixon administration is an uneasy setting, and the era’s gas crisis also plays a key role.

Anderson at heart has always been an actor’s director. His “Magnolia” DVD commentary (remember those?) is essentially three hours of unabashed gushing and praise for his actors. And here he’s working with two first timers who deliver two of the most incredible performances in years.

Hoffman is the son of late Anderson collaborator Phillip Seymour — the son’s waterbed business being a callback to his father’s “Mattress Man” in “Punch Drunk Love.” It’s probably that uncanny physical resemblance that makes Gary’s confidence so unexpected and infectious. It’s world’s away from his father’s awkward Scotty in “Boogie Nights.” The young Hoffman gives a naturalistic performance that bodes for a great career to come, even if his first role will be tough to top.

Anderson likewise is a family friend of the Haims (having directed videos for the band), and Alana captures that youngest sister syndrome, as well as that point in early adulthood where you know you’re supposed to grow up but you’re not sure how.

“Do you think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his friends all the time?” she asks a friend. Yes, of course, it’s weird. It only makes sense in the full context of the movie.

Freelance online writers seeking clicks were quick to jump on this as a creepy age-gap romance. I’d argue that few who actually watch the film would have that takeaway. Anderson and his actors all handle this with delicacy and innocence.

Of course, it’s not just his newcomers from whom Anderson gets great performances. A gleefully unhinged Bradley Cooper gives a performance that will be talked about for years. A scene bringing together Sean Penn and Tom Waits? Yes, please.

There’s an air of danger lurking around the edges, but this is also just a warm and glowing portrait of those times growing up when the consequences are easier to shrug off.

I’ll need another viewing or two to properly rank this among Anderson’s work, but sheerly in terms of leaving your heart full, it’s among his very best.

“Licorice Pizza”

Now playing in theaters

5 stars out of 5