CAST: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Emma Dumont, Maya Rudolph, Skyler Gisondo, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Joseph Cross, Nate Mann, John C. Reilly, Christine Ebersole, Ray Chase, John Michael Higgins, Sasha Spielberg, Harriet Sansom Harris
RUNNING TIME: 133 mins
BASICALLY…: Two young acquaintances (Haim and Hoffman) experience life in 1970s San Fernando Valley…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
It’s been a while since anticipation was so high for a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. Make no mistake, the very name of the filmmaker should be enough to get people at the very least interested in seeing it – especially with modern classics like Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood all under his belt – but there was something about hearing all the positive feedback for Licorice Pizza, the director’s ninth overall feature film, that made me more excited for one of his movies than the last handful of movies he’s made.
Having seen it, I’m happy to confirm that the movie is every bit as delightful as the hype suggested it to be, and is quite possibly the auteur’s finest piece of work since There Will Be Blood (which so happens to be one of my favourite films).
Set in 1973 within the San Fernando Valley, Licorice Pizza begins as 15-year-old child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of late PTA collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman) meets 25-year-old photography assistant Alana (Alana Haim) during his school’s picture day. Immediately infatuated, Gary asks Alana out on a date, despite the fact that she is ten years his senior, which she is more than keen to remind him of constantly. Nevertheless, their meet-cute sparks a whirlwind set of misadventures for the duo, as they both try and figure out what exactly they want to do with their young lives; as they try everything from acting to selling waterbeds to volunteering for political candidates, Gary and Alana form a tight bond that isn’t quite full-blown romance, but more of a mutual appreciation for each other’s overwhelming qualities amidst their obvious flaws.
The film is, in many ways, a spiritual successor to PTA’s highly underrated romantic-comedy Punch-Drunk Love, which like Licorice Pizza also delves into unexpected drama amidst its rather complex central pairing. Throughout, you’re utterly charmed by the chemistry that actors Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim – both excelling in highly charismatic debut performances – share with one another, but at the same time there is a sense of uncertainty surrounding their relationship, with the filmmaker certainly playing the will-they-won’t-they card throughout while narrowly avoiding many of the familiar rom-com conventions. There are also the personalities of both protagonists to consider as to the outcome of their happy ending; beyond the fact that one is an adult while the other is still technically a minor, both are still at that time in their respective lives where they’re not entirely sure what or who they want to be in the future, so by trying so many things and getting into all of these situations – including going back and forth on feelings for each other – feels like an extremely natural progression to how their future together is not entirely written in stone, even by the time the ending credits come about. It’s a very smart plot by PTA to keep the sense of ambiguity alive long enough to suggest alternative paths for them at all times, instead of simply forcing them together by the laws of rom-com sensibilities, which would have made this film feel a lot more conventional than it thankfully is.
One of the more underappreciated aspects of PTA’s writing and direction is how his films do contain a rather vivid sense of humour, even in circumstances where laughter isn’t normally expected. There’s tons of it throughout Licorice Pizza, from some of the very funny dialogue exchanges (one in particular with Alana Haim is so perfectly executed that it caused me to laugh harder than most other actual comedies this year) to the farcical nature of the 70s-era Hollywood scene, encapsulated by small appearances from the likes of Sean Penn as a William Holden surrogate with an affinity for motorcycle jumping, and most memorably Bradley Cooper as an utterly homicidal rendition of famed producer Jon Peters. There are entire sequences that rely on their unexpected nature for some good chuckles, including one character being suddenly arrested on suspicion of murder (it’s much funnier than it sounds), and a surprisingly suspenseful scene of a truck rolling backwards down a windy hill road, with the laughs hitting all the harder because the context, or in some cases the lack of context, are so wildly executed that you’re always along for the crazy ride.
Of his filmography, Licorice Pizza stands out as one of the more uplifting and sweetest that PTA has yet made. Not only are you completely hooked on to this central relationship between these flawed but likeable lead characters, but the episodic free-wheeling structure allows it a sense of freedom that only a master filmmaker like PTA could bestow. There is true passion around every corner of this film, whether it’s the gorgeous cinematography (which PTA is co-credited for alongside Michael Bauman) or the vibrant soundtrack made up of 70s hits by Nina Simone, David Bowie and Sonny & Cher along with some fine deep-cuts that are destined to please fans of that musical era, while everything else from the writing to the performances to the editing is pitch-perfect at giving you the right emotional reactions without sacrificing any of its genuine charm. It is a film that is remarkably free from restraint by formula or narrative templates, allowing the viewer to simply experience these characters’ lives rather than tie them down to well-worn conventions and familiar genre tropes, and perhaps most astonishingly give many of its more expected conventions the feeling of this particular story being told for the very first time.
Certainly one of PTA’s finest films in a long while, Licorice Pizza is a rather wonderful film that positions the auteur on an even higher plane of existence that few other filmmakers of his calibre have yet to reach (though unfortunately, the film is docked a single point for not explaining what in the hell a licorice pizza actually is).
SO, TO SUM UP…
Licorice Pizza is a wonderous and free-spirited film from filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, who brings plenty of warmth, humour and charm to a loose 70s-era story filled with delightfully episodic misadventures and convention-free sweetness.