Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Licorice Pizza’ Is a Fellini-Esque Love Letter to 1970s SoCal
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A love letter to the San Fernando Valley of the 1970s, shaggy hair, waterbeds and the entrepreneurial spirit of its two protagonists, Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most accessible film since Boogie Nights, another Valley-set roundelay. Instead of porn and cocaine in the neon-bright ’80s, its attendant paranoia and the encroaching specter of death, Anderson’s lens on the ’70s is warmer, a nostalgic hug that’s as shambolic and rigorous as classic foreign cinema. François Truffaut meets Federico Fellini somewhere in Encino.
“This story just emerged,” Anderson has said. “I love the way it unfolds. You meet these two people. You have them fall in love and get to see their relationship blossom, and there are various episodes that challenge them in different ways. I didn’t overdesign it. I just got lucky.”
He didn’t have to venture far to strike gold in casting his two leads. Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old high school student/child actor who meets Alana Cain (Alana Haim, of the rock band Haim), a yearbook photographer’s assistant 10 years Gary’s senior. Definitive and action-oriented where Alana is impulsive and exploratory, Gary pursues her despite the age difference (and her initial protestations).
The film is basically an extended rom-com with the vast canvas of early-to-mid-’70s SoCal at its disposal, and this allows Anderson the freedom to include some of his most entertaining (and funny) digressions from the central plot. Like Robert Altman before him, he’s a master at populating a community wherein nearly every face and performer has their moment to capture our attention.
The big stars light it up here. Sean Penn is a marvel as Jack Holden (based, loosely, on William Holden). His aging macho star — who runs into Rex Blau (Tom Waits), one of his former directors, while at dinner with an impressionable Alana — is goaded by the gravel-voiced auteur to recreate a motorcycle stunt for the entire crowd of diners at Tail ‘o the Cock. As they all traipse outdoors in their dinner finery, the film becomes, in the best way, Fellini-esque.
And Bradley Cooper plays a mean, funny version of the legendary producer Jon Peters, to whom Alana and Gary and a few others are delivering a waterbed. He’s full of bluster and braggadocio and way too much testosterone for one man to handle. He’s such a fan of the ladies he’s like the attack dogs in Up whenever they see a squirrel.
Neither of the incidents are fully necessary for the plot, but much of the flavor of Anderson’s work is in the feints and byways and digressions. L.A. is an industry town, so of course these kids would rub elbows with the famous, the infamous and every other manner of creature. There’s a fantastically humorous scene between Alana, Gary and a prospective agent for Alana that is stolen by the stealth character actress Harriet Sansom Harris.
John C. Reilly shows up as Fred Gwynne in Frankenstein drag; you wouldn’t know it was him save his instantly recognizable voice. And Benny Safdie, the actor-director (with his brother Josh) of Uncut Gems and Good Time, uses his bottomless blue-eyed stare for empathy (not fear — he’s great at playing unhinged fuckups). His Joel Wachs, a mayoral candidate, is hiding a big, gay secret.
As great as the ensemble is, Licorice Pizza wouldn’t work without Hoffman and, especially, Alana Haim. Hoffman is to the manor born, as they say, and his first major feature is a notice of intent. Haim gives the best performance of the month by a working musician (sorry, Lady G), and if you think she’s not acting, look again.
Yes, Anderson casts her family to play versions of themselves here (her father, Moti, has crack timing), but that was just smart on his behalf; a shortcut to put the young thespian at ease. Her character goes through the most change, trying out various professions to figure out which one fits her best, various potential partners, until realizing what was in front of her the entire time. True, Gary is 15 when they meet, so consummation isn’t on the menu — this would be a very different film! — but the emotional arc of their relationship is as sweet and sticky as the film’s title.
“After many months of banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what to name this film,” Anderson has said, “I concluded that these two words shoved together reminded me the most of my childhood. Growing up, there was a record-store chain in Southern California called Licorice Pizza. It seemed like a catch-all for the feeling of the film. I suppose if you have no reference to the store, it’s two great words that go well together and maybe capture a mood. Maybe it just looks good on a poster? The production company that we shot the film under was called Soggy Bottom, which is the name of Gary Valentine’s waterbed company, and that got miscommunicated in the press as the title. In the long run, I couldn’t live with naming a film Soggy Bottom.”