Find a theatre where “Licorice Pizza” is playing (it’s not currently streaming) and get ready for a screwball comedy explosion about the serious business of first love instead of trying to get a fix on the whirlwind of dizzying delights that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson calls “Licorice Pizza.”
The film has major names like Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn, as well as many references to Barbra Streisand, but it centers on two newcomers: Alana Haim, a member of the sister trio Haim, and Cooper Hoffman, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s lookalike son. Neither of them has ever taken action before. However, Haim and Hoffman are the stars of the show. They’re fantastic.
“Licorice Pizza” is a reference to a now-defunct record store chain in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles in the 1970s, where Anderson grew up and the narrative takes place. However, the filmmaker, affectionately referred to as PTA among movie buffs never references the franchise. Perhaps it’s easier to think of licorice and pizza as two things that don’t go together until they do in this divine love match.
Hoffman, 18, portrays Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old child actor whose self-assurance far outweighs his talent. Alana Kane, a 25-year-old firecracker, brushes off the swaggering Gary when he hits on her while she’s assisting at a photoshoot for his high school yearbook. Haim, 29, plays Alana Kane, a 25-year-old firecracker who brushes off the swaggering Gary when he hits on her while she’s assisting at a photoshoot for his high school yearbook.
As Gary and Alana snipe, flirt, and rush at one other, Anderson sets up roadblocks: the age gap, conflicting personalities, his immaturity colliding with her intelligence, and the political and Hollywood milieu that threatens to swallow them up.
Gary persuades his manager’s mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) to accompany him to New York for a cast reunion for “Under One Roof,” the corny family comedy that launched his career. Gary even gets Alana an interview with talent agent Mary Grady (Harriet Sansom Harris, an acid-tongued hysteric), who claims Alana’s “very Jewish nose” is a plus these days.
She’s referring to Barbra Streisand, which brings in Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters, the womanizing, rageaholic hairdresser who’s dating the icon and employs Gary and Alana to construct a waterbed to get some waves in his sex life with her.
Gary’s entrepreneurial endeavor to strike it wealthy in business includes the waterbed (pinball machines will come later). During the installation, a flood occurs, necessitating an escape via truck, which Alana drives like a seasoned teamster around the hairpin curves.
Haim also steals the show with a bold, bouncy naturalness and emotional subtlety that makes her cinematic debut one remember. Alana’s infatuations with a predatory movie star (Sean Penn acting sneaky and sozzled) and a closeted mayoral candidate —smarmed by Benny Safdie of the filmmaking Safdie brothers— don’t work out.
Alana confesses that hanging out with Gary and his 15-year-old pals is “strange,” but she can’t stop herself. The film can’t either. Anderson’s visual rollercoaster, set to irresistible period music that has David Bowie questioning, “Is there life on Mars?” questions if there is life for Alana and Gary in a world of political and psychological despair.
There is, of course. It’s a family affair when it comes to “Licorice Pizza.” PTA has directed Halm’s videos and placed Alana’s parents and sisters in roles that are based on themselves. Hoffman’s father featured in five of his films, including “The Master” and “Boogie Nights,” and he’s an unofficial godfather to him.
What does PTA, the filmmaker of such epic sagas as “There Will Be Blood” and “Magnolia,” have to do with this eccentric, fast-paced romance that revels in its own bizarreness? That’s what he’s doing: expressing his affection for the moment, the area, the emotion, and two young performers he plainly admires.
Don’t mistake “Licorice Pizza” for a side project from a renowned filmmaker who is unquestionably the greatest of his time. You’d be disregarding how the film continues to reverberate in your mind and emotions. Anderson does not construct a happy conclusion for a future that is unclear. But his portrayal of a young person attuned to the whirling delight of potential is completely seductive, and it’s one of the year’s greatest films.