by Julian Spivey
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman & Bradley Cooper
Runtime: 2 hours & 13 minutes
Through no intentions I’ve somehow managed to have never seen a Paul Thomas Anderson movie before seeing “Licorice Pizza,” so now that I’ve completely discredited myself as a film critic, let’s review the director’s latest film.
It may be quite typical of Anderson’s style, but I must first warn you before going into “Licorice Pizza” that there is essentially no plot to this film. If that bothers you you might want to skip it, but you would be missing out on some absolutely fantastic performances, especially given the two leads of this film have never acted in a motion picture before. “Licorice Pizza” is a hangout film and because the characters are so interesting, I didn’t mind spending a couple of hours with them.
“Licorice Pizza” stars Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Oscar-winning actor and longtime P.T.A. collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman, as 15-year old Gary Valentine living in the San Fernando Valley of California in 1973. Valentine is a child actor, but he seems to be aging out of that quickly and looking for any get rich scheme he can find. Many reviewers have referred to Gary as a “hustler,” and I guess that’s true, but to me he also comes off something of a con man, a future skeevy used car salesman if you will. Gary is always interesting, but not often likable. I’m not sure if Anderson, who also wrote the script, intended him that way though because the character is based off the childhood of Anderson’s friend Gary Goetzman.
It’s the film’s other lead character Alana Kane, played by Alana Haim of the Grammy-nominated sister pop-rock group Haim, that I found so likable. That being said, Alana Haim is hard not to like, even when playing a fictional character. Kane is something of a lovable loser, she’s 25-years old and aimless working for a creepy photograph at the film’s beginning, which is where she first meets Gary during his high school yearbook photoshoot. It’s the first scene in the film and it may well be the single best one in the entire movie, as the two are flirting from the moment they meet in the photo line until it’s Gary’s turn to take his picture in a long tracking shot that had me smiling most of the way.
I wish Anderson could’ve somehow kept the magic of that opening scene bottled up for the entirety of the film – but isn’t that how relationships work, you have the magic of the meet-cute and then it’s topsy-turvy from then on.
The 10-year age gap between the two characters had led to some controversy, as Gary is a teen and Alana is an adult in the film, but I think it’s mostly folks complaining to complain. Never in the film is Alana predatory, in fact, it’s the age gap that has her mostly just interested in being Gary’s friend for the majority of the film.
The movie is basically told in vignettes and some of them work better than others. The scene with Sean Penn as an aging actor, based on William Holden, trying to re-live his glory days on a motorcycle while being egged on by Tom Waits’ veteran film director could’ve been left on the cutting floor in my opinion, even if it does serve as a form of jealousy between Gary and Alana and leads to one of their coming togethers again. Also, something that could’ve been left on the cutting room floor is John Michael Higgins’ as the Japanese restauranteur with a new Japanese wife each time we see him, who doesn’t speak the language but feels he’ll be understood if he uses an offensive accent. It’s this character that has drawn more controversy to the film and has even led to some boycotts. The character just isn’t necessary.
Then we have a vignette that is among the best parts of the film involving the leads bringing a waterbed, one of Gary’s schemes before the oil embargo of the early ‘70s puts an end to it, to film producer Jon Peters, played chaotically by Bradley Cooper in a performance hopefully not too small for the Academy to ignore come Oscar-season. The fantastic part of the scene is knowing that Alana Haim did most, if not all, of the driving of this big moving truck on her own during the film shoot.
One thing that Anderson absolutely knocked out of the park with “Licorice Pizza” is its soundtrack with tracks of the era and some of the best needle drops I’ve seen in recent years in cinema, particularly with David Bowe’s “Life on Mars?” and “Let Me Roll It” by Paul McCartney and Wings. The soundtrack really enhances the mood and overall likability of the film.
A complaint I have about “Licorice Pizza” is that my distrust of Gary and my full on crush of Alana have me feeling a certain negativity when it comes to the ending. I think a lot of viewers of the film will probably come away feeling differently than I do about it and that will probably lead to a more satisfied ending for them than I had watching “Licorice Pizza.”