LICORICE PIZZA

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Stars: Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim, Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Benny Safdie, Maya Rudolph, John Michael Higgins, John C Reilly, Tom Waits, Will Angarola, Milo Herschlag, Skyler Gisondo, Christine Ebersole, Joseph Cross.

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The new film from auteur Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, etc) is a coming-of-age comedy/romance set in a sun-drenched Los Angeles circa 1973 and steeped in the music and pop cultural icons of the 70s. The film has been loosely based on the life and exploits of childhood friend and former child star Gary Goetzman, who is also Tom Hanks’ producing partner.  

Gary’s fictional counterpart here is Gary Valentine (played by Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who starred in many of Anderson’s films), a precocious 15-year-old schoolboy, part time actor and entrepreneur and hustler. Gary meets Alana Kane (played by Alana Haim, from the eponymous band Haim, making her film debut here in a role written specifically for her), a 25-year-old who works as an assistant for a photographer who is taking the photographs for the school yearbook. Alana doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life and is still living at home with her family. Despite their obvious age difference, the pair strike up an unusual friendship, and the film follows the on and off again relationship of this mis-matched couple over the course of one summer.  

Gary has his various schemes – including selling waterbeds and opening a pinball parlour – and Alana is along for the ride. Alana gains an audition with aging and alcoholic Hollywood actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn) – many scribes have said that this character is based on the Oscar winning William Holden, but I felt that with his love of motorcycles and doing his own dangerous stunts he was more of a Steve McQueen type. And she also becomes involved in politics when she works as an assistant with the electoral campaign for charismatic mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (film director Benny Safdie), an enigmatic character with a dark secret. 

The film immediately evokes memories of some of those other classic coming-of-age films like American Grafitti and Fast Times At Ridgemont High, both of which were a huge influence on Anderson, as were the films of the late, great Robert Altman. This quirky film has a more laid-back vibe than his previous films, which have been more intense and dealt with serious themes, and Anderson gives the material a youthful energy that recalls his earlier work with Boogie Nights. The film is steeped in 70s nostalgia and is also laced with plenty of cinematic references and film lore. Along the way there are encounters with some big names in Hollywood, including uber producer and “hairdresser to the stars” Jon Peters (an unhinged performance from Bradley Cooper), who tells Gary all about his superstar girlfriend, actress/singer Barbra Streisand.  

Anderson and co-cinematographer Michael Bauman use a saturated colour palette that imbues the material with a strong sense of nostalgia. Anderson has captured the vibe of the 70s, with a soundtrack that evokes the era beautifully. Licorice Pizza is liberally littered with cultural touchstones from the era, including the energy crisis, in which Anderson himself grew up. The sprawling plot though is loosely structured with lots of little vignettes and narrative strands, many told to the director by Goetzman, but there is a real lack of focus as the film meanders along in unhurried fashion. And some narrative strands, such as when Gary is mistakenly arrested for murder, go nowhere and are quickly abandoned.   

The film is filled with warmth and compassion for its central characters and it deftly captures the awkwardness of adolescence and first romance. Neither Hoffman nor Haim have acted before, but both inhabit their characters perfectly here as they tease, occasionally snipe at each other and flirt with each other. In her first film role as the headstrong Alana, Haim has a strong presence and deftly conveys her character’s range of emotions. Hoffman himself brings plenty of energy and confidence to his performance as the overachieving Gary, and his performance is tinged by a hint of poignancy given his father’s close association with the filmmaker. Haim’s own siblings and fellow band members play Alana’s family here which adds to the easy going and natural rapport and dynamic. (Anderson has directed many of the band’s music videos.) Leonardo Di Caprio’s father turns up in a cameo as the manager of a waterbed shop, which reflects his own story. And the cast is filled with cameos from Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s wife) to John C Reilly (another regular in his films), John Michael Higgins, and Tom Waits, who all breathe life into their eccentric characters. 

An unconventional romantic comedy/drama featuring an oddball couple, Licorice Pizza takes its obtuse title from the name of a chain of defunct record stores in California in the 70s. This is a love letter to the LA of his childhood and it finds Anderson in a more playful mood, and its nostalgic streak will strike a chord with many cinephiles.  

★★★ 

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