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Paul Thomas Anderson’s golden, shimmering vision of the 1970s San Fernando Valley in “Licorice Pizza” is so dreamy, so full of possibility, it’s as if it couldn’t actually have existed. With its lengthy, magic-hour walk-and-talks and its sense of adventure around every corner and down every block, it’s a place where anything could happen as day turns to night.
And yet within that joyful, playful reverie lurks an unmistakable undercurrent of danger. It’s in the score from Anderson’s frequent collaborator, the brilliant Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, putting you ever so slightly on edge. It’s in the searchlights outside the grand opening of a Ventura Boulevard pinball parlor, incessantly beckoning to the sky. And it’s in big, brash moments through showy supporting performances from Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn, both going for broke. Anything could happen as day turns to night—but are you ready for that?
This is a place Anderson knows well from his own childhood and it’s where he still lives today. His love is specific and palpable for the Valley, with its suburban sprawl and non-descript strip malls. This is the place of my youth, too—I grew up In Woodland Hills, just down the 101 Freeway from where the events of “Licorice Pizza” occur, and I recall fondly the Southern California record store chain that gives the film its title. (As a kid, I used to go to the one on Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Canoga Park, across the street from Topanga Plaza.) He’s taken us on a tour of this area before in a couple of the great, early films that put him on the map (“Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”) but with “Licorice Pizza,” he offers us a gentler view. Anderson has harnessed all the thrilling, muscular techniques that are his directing trademarks as well as his affection for high drama as a writer and applied them to telling a story that’s surprisingly sweet.
It’s also wildly unexpected from one moment to the next as Anderson masterfully navigates tonal shifts from absurd humor to tender romance with a couple of legitimate action sequences thrown in between. “Licorice Pizza” meanders in the best possible way: You never know where it’s going but you can’t wait to find out where it’ll end up, and when it’s over, you won’t want it to end. Once the credits finished rolling, I had no desire to get up from my seat and leave the theater, I was so wrapped up in the film’s cozy, wistful spell.
And in Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, both making their feature film debuts, Anderson has given us the most glorious guides. “Licorice Pizza” will make superstars of them both, and deservedly so. Hoffman is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose long and fruitful relationship with Anderson resulted in some of the defining work of his career, ranging from the heartbreaking (“Boogie Nights”) to the terrifying (“The Master”). Hoffman has a very different look and demeanor from his father—he has an infectious, boyish optimism—but he shares his dad’s intriguing screen presence. And Haim is just a flat-out movie star. She has that “thing”: that radiant, magnetic charisma that makes it impossible to take your eyes off her. The youngest of the three sisters who comprise the indie rock band HAIM—they have a long and fruitful relationship of their own with Anderson, who’s directed several of their music videos—she’s got impeccable comic timing and consistently makes inspired choices. Together, she and Hoffman have a snappy chemistry that’s the stuff of classic screwball comedies, but they both seem totally at home in this ‘70s setting. Adding to the authenticity is the presence of Haim’s sisters, Danielle and Este, playing Alana's sisters. And their actual parents play their parents, all of which pays off beautifully in a hilarious, Friday-night shabbat dinner scene.
We haven’t even begun discussing the plot, but then again, the plot isn’t really the point. In the simplest terms, “Licorice Pizza” finds Haim’s Alana and Hoffman’s Gary running around the Valley, starting various businesses, flirting, pretending they don’t care about each other, and potentially falling for other people to avoid falling for each other. One thing: She’s 25 and he’s 15, and they meet cute at his high school where’s she’s helping the photographers on picture day. What makes this amorphous romance make sense is that a) it’s extremely chaste, b) she’s sort of stunted at the film’s start, and c) Anderson wisely establishes early on that Gary has a swagger and intelligence beyond his years. In a way that’s reminiscent of Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” all the adults Gary encounters take him seriously and treat him as an equal. The fact that he’s a longtime child star has a lot to do with his maturity (and the character of Gary is inspired by Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks’ longtime producing partner, who was an actor in his youth). So when he meets Alana and is instantly smitten by her, he carries himself with such confidence and addresses her so directly that she can’t help but get drawn into his world.
While their ever-evolving relationship provides the framework for the film, “Licorice Pizza” is really about this young woman’s journey of self-discovery: trying out different jobs and clothes, different priorities and personalities, and seeing what fits. (Oscar-winning “Phantom Thread” costume designer Mark Bridges vividly reinvents her look for each new situation.) The vast majority of characters Anderson has focused on throughout his career have been men, from Dirk Diggler to Reynolds Woodcock, so to see him turn his immense artistic instincts toward a woman is only part of what makes “Licorice Pizza” such a breath of fresh air. Hope springs eternal for Alana, but the reality of life as a young woman in Los Angeles—hell, in the world—keeps rearing its head. Maybe it’s an intrusive conversation with an agent when she’s pondering becoming an actress. Or it’s a midnight motorcycle ride with a much older screen star (Penn, as a William Holden figure, gets to be unusually charming). Cooper serves as a much more obvious source of menace as an unhinged Jon Peters, the real-life hairdresser-turned-producer who dated Barbra Streisand; he absolutely tears it up in just a couple of scenes in a way that’s funny and ferocious at once. (Christine Ebersole, Skyler Gisondo, Benny Safdie, Joseph Cross, and Tom Waits are among the many actors who enjoy standout moments within this packed cast.)
Peters’ presence here is crucial to the through-line of Hollywood’s prevalence in this time and place. Gary reminded me of so many kids I grew up with: They had agents and headshots, they got to leave school early for auditions, they had parents who would schlep them all over town to pursue their dreams of stardom. Gary merely takes that initiative and funnels it into a variety of endeavors, and Alana finds herself coming along for the ride. A long tracking shot in which Gary enters the Hollywood Palladium to launch his waterbed company (something Goetzman actually did) calls to mind both the beginning of “Boogie Nights” and the end of “Phantom Thread.” Anderson, serving as his own cinematographer again (this time alongside Michael Bauman), infuses this moment and so many others with a mixture of wonder and melancholy.
And as always, he gets so much right about this location and era. The details are dead-on without ever devolving into kitschy caricature: a baby-blue rotary phone hanging on the kitchen wall, or a billboard for the rock radio station KMET perched above a gas station. Gary lives in Sherman Oaks, but in a modest, mid-century ranch-style house, rather than one of the fancier neighborhoods south of the boulevard. And the gas shortage that plagued this period is just one more source of tension for these characters as they try to make their way in the world. Anderson doesn’t pummel us over the head with geopolitical reasons, but rather shows Gary running in slow motion past long lines of cars at the pumps, with David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” as a powerful choice of music in the background.
And yet, an achingly romantic tone returns by the end, as well as the sensation that while we may not have ended up anywhere in our wanderings, we just watched the best movie of the year.
Available in select cities on November 26th and everywhere on December 25th.
Alana Haim as Alana Kane
Cooper Hoffman as Gary Valentine
Sean Penn as Jack Holden
Tom Waits as Rex Blau
Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters
Benny Safdie as Joel Wachs