I need to stake out a position here on Licorice Pizza, since it’s becoming an awards contender. After the death grip that Paul Thomas Anderson has kept on his last few movies, I do appreciate him taking a looser approach to this coming-of-age story, which is titled after a now-defunct chain of SoCal record shops. I don’t think it’s one of the best movies of the year, as other people are calling it. I don’t find it as funny or as insightful as Booksmart. I do find it quite charming and likeable. That might not be enough to make my Top 10 list (watch for it next week), but it’s enough to recommend as it opens this weekend.
This is based on the childhood of Gary Goetzman, the child actor who went on to produce such films as The Silence of the Lambs, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Mamma Mia! The story takes place in 1973 in the city of Encino, where Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a 15-year-old working actor in stage plays and the occasional Hollywood film. On his school’s picture day, he is awestruck when he sees Alana Kane (Alana Haim), who is 10 years older and hates her life as an assistant at her dad’s portrait photography studio. Gary decides he’s going to make this woman into his girlfriend, and Alana finds herself hanging out with him and his similarly aged friends.
That main plot does not advance a great deal. Mostly, it’s the framework for a series of comic misadventures in the San Fernando Valley. Alana dates a skeezy older man (Sean Penn) and Gary hustles for money first by opening a waterbed shop and then converting it into a pinball arcade. Anderson’s talent for set pieces is undiminished here, as he shoots a hair-raising sequence when a moving truck carrying our main characters runs out of gas and starts rolling backward down a twisting mountain road. It plays out in near-total silence, as Gary is petrified and Alana steers the out-of-control vehicle around the curves with a look of grim determination on her face.
Equally dangerous is an interlude when Gary delivers a waterbed to coked-up Hollywood producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), who corrects Gary’s pronunciation of Barbra Streisand’s name and then uses the same tone of voice to threaten to bludgeon Gary’s little brother to death in front of him. Peters is a real-life person, like many of the characters here, and for strictly legal reasons, he was listed as a producer on Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born, which caused Cooper to need to field questions about why a widely accused sexual predator was producing his movie. His portrayal of Peters as an unhinged man who smashes shop windows as he walks down the street is a delicious act of revenge.
Alana takes a new job working for City Councilman Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie, one of the directors of Uncut Gems), which leads to a great, lengthy, uncomfortable scene at a restaurant. Joel talks to a man named Matthew (Joseph Cross), and Anderson keeps the camera on Alana’s face as she sits between them and slowly realizes that they are a gay couple and that their relationship is at a breaking point because Matthew is tired of staying closeted for the benefit of Joel’s political career. Hoffman (the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who acted in many of Anderson’s films) is noteworthy as the adenoidal, acne-scarred teen whose confidence comes from his acting experience, but the real star turn comes from Haim, who fully inhabits this insecure young woman who’s searching for a path of her own. By the way, fans of her band will be happy to learn that her sisters also turn up in this movie, portraying Alana’s sisters.
Licorice Pizza is full of illuminating moments like these. It isn’t a grand statement, it doesn’t have the scope of Boogie Nights, and it doesn’t even add up to much of a yarn. However, it’s bursting with odd bits of life in various corners — we learn everything we need or want to know about Gary’s agent (Harriet Sansom Harris) when she tells Alana, “You have an extremely Jewish nose.” Its atmosphere and small insights into character are more than enough reason for us to welcome it.
Starring Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Rated R.