2021, R, 133 min. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, John Michael Higgins.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 24, 2021
If there's a prevailing theme to the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, it's a simple one: Who is deserving of love? It's an explicit theme in Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love, but barely submerged beneath the surface of There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread. His romances are convoluted and filled with desperate connections. His familial bonds are bloodied and strained. Yet he's never dealt directly with first love, puppy dog love, like he does in Licorice Pizza, his biographical trip through the San Fernando Valley of 1973.
Envision it as Anderson's variations on Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood. Both films take place in post-Hollywood life, but from very different perspectives. In Tarantino's revisionist history, the protagonists were aging out of Tinsel Town, trying to evade that long walk into the sunset. Anderson, assembling his story from a mixture of reminiscences from friends and Hollywood lore, sets his characters up with a brighter horizon. After all, Gary Valentine (Hoffman, based in great part on Anderson's friend and former child actor Gary Goetzman) is only 15 when he crashes out of his own rising stardom and is young enough to bounce back into a series of schemes that will end up as fun dinner party stories 30 years later. He's funny and charming, in a husky, dorky way, and manages to convince aimless twentysomething Alana Kane (Haim, who appears with her whole family, including her siblings from rock band Haim) to tag along. Can these two crazy kids make any of this work? Gary's definitely going to try, and Alana does a very bad job of not hanging around with this teen kid.
Licorice Pizza is arguably a return to Anderson's more tenderhearted dramas, most especially Magnolia. It has that same love for his protagonists, rather than the tempered compassion of Punch Drunk Love. It also has the same episodic, almost anecdotal feel, and therein lies one of its structural flaws. A series of interlinked events work better for an ensemble than for a duet, and Licorice Pizza has the warm enveloping feeling of closing your eyes and listening as an unlikely couple tells the story of how they first met. There's a lot of "oh, and do you remember when ..." to their stories, most of which will resonate most strongly with anyone with L.A. connections and roots. The deeper, the better, it seems, because Anderson goes full James Ellroy with his L.A. homages and nods. Alana and Gary pass through the periphery of a more star-laden City of Angels, with Sean Penn as a scarcely disguised William Holden, Benny Safdie as future mayor Joel Wachs, and a highly entertaining turn from Bradley Cooper as super producer Jon Peters, coked out of his gourd.
The strange and challengingly charming awkwardness of Alana and Gary, as well as the more entertaining anecdotes, will get you past the somewhat lumpen structure. When the stories don't land, like a weirdly racist minor subplot involving Japanese restaurant entrepreneur Jerry Frick (Higgins), Licorice Pizza really depends on Haim and Hoffman who, fortunately, are great enough together and apart to even get past that age gap. Do they deserve each other's love? That's the question Anderson wants you to answer on your own.