Depending on who you are, you probably have a different type of Paul Thomas Anderson film that you gravitate towards. Those in one camp love his earlier work, evocative of the likes of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. Then, we have folks in another camp, who prefer the more recent and more formal offerings, where he’s experimenting with an almost Stanley Kubrick-like way of making movies. Of course, there’s also the camp that just loves anything Anderson does. Personally, I’m partial to the PTA who made arguably the greatest one-two-three punch in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love. For anyone who’s like me, Licorice Pizza is coming along like mana from cinematic heaven. Again set in California like those flicks, it’s also probably his most romantic and even silly work. Anderson is having fun here, with the result being one of the year’s most interesting and actually enjoyable movies.
Licorice Pizza might not quite be on the level of his early genius, but it shows PTA getting back to a shaggier style of storytelling. While not as epic in scope as Boogie Nights or especially Magnolia, Anderson seems to be strolling through his protagonists’ lives. He’s clearly enjoying himself, telling a story of young love that’s full of optimism and a belief in better things to come. Somehow, this oftentimes peculiar auteur has crafted a first rate crowdpleaser. Plus, he’s also made one hell of an acting discovery with Alana Haim.
Taking place in the San Fernando Valley, circa 1973, this is the story of Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Haim). Gary is a child actor, known for a few supporting roles in films, while Alana is a 25 year old woman trying to figure out her place in the world. She meets the fifteen year old while working as a photographer’s assistant during Picture Day at Gary’s High School, and he’s immediately smitten. He clumsily asks her out, trying to be smooth, but she sees right through it, shooting him down. However, there’s something charming about him, and she offers to be friends. Gary is undeterred, but also accepts her friendship, though he’ll seethe with jealousy when she starts dating a former co-star of his in Lance (Skyler Gisondo). They grow closer when she begins working for him at one of his budding businesses, selling waterbeds. That leads to a memorable encounter with Hollywood player Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper). The more they experience, the closer they get, bonding and flirting, while also getting on each other’s nerves.
While Gary seems content to move from one entrepreneurial opportunity to the next, all while hoping against hope that Alana comes around, she has bigger dreams in mind. Flirtations with acting lead to her to intense company with intense movie star Jack Holden (Sean Penn), but her dreams remain unfulfilled. Later in the film, those manifest in the candidacy for Mayor of Los Angeles by City Councilman Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). She sees him as a figure of hope, right as Gary is beginning to grow frustrated with her. The feeling is mutual, but the spark between them, be it or friendship or love, remains undeniable. Will it ever be reciprocated? Will people continue to let Alana down? The answers will come, but Anderson makes you wait, all while enveloping you in a sunny tale that never lets you remove a smile from your face.
Alana Haim is a revelation, delivering one of the most compelling and memorable debut performances in recent memory. She shows off so many competing emotions and does it almost effortlessly. As she figures out what she wants, you’re rooting for her the whole way. This turn truly has to be seen in order to be fully appreciated. Cooper Hoffman is no slouch either, but he’s at his best when they’re together. The chemistry between Haim and Hoffman is very much that of these characters, which is hard to pull off. You’ll leave this film eager to follow their acting careers. Bradley Cooper has the showiest part, though he’s basically an extended cameo. Without question, he’s having a blast, evoking so much of what Kevin Smith notably monologued about Peters years ago. He’s almost inconsequential to the plot, but his scenes are a riot. Sean Penn is amusing too, but on a smaller and less memorable scale. Supporting players here include the aforementioned Skyler Gisondo and Benny Safdie, as well as Joseph Cross, Danielle Haim, Este Haim, John Michael Higgins, Maya Rudolph, Tom Waits, and many more. Everyone has a moment here, but Alana Haim just has dozens.
Paul Thomas Anderson writes and directs this (as well as sharing cinematography duties with Michael Bauman) with a clear smile on his face. He’s pondering young love, as only he can do it. Not only is this about as funny as Anderson has ever been, it’s also as romantic. He’s not winking, either. PTA believes what he’s selling. There’s an earnestness we’ve never seen from him before. His portrait of young love is like a memory of a time gone by, with all the hazy recollections one might have. Truly, it works. As always, the technical aspects of his work is flawless, from his visuals with Bauman, to Mark Bridges‘ costumes, to the minimal yet effective Jonny Greenwood score. Meandering but always fun, 133 minutes flies by.
Oscar-wise, Licorice Pizza should again see Anderson float the Academy’s boat, thought to what degree remains to be seen. A Best Picture nomination is fairly likely, as is a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Cooper. PTA himself will be in play for Best Director, but far more so in Best Original Screenplay, while Haim could definitely upend the bottom end of the Best Actress race with a nomination. Below the line, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Editing are certainly viable citations.
Licorice Pizza is a delight, plain and simple. We’ve never seen Paul Thomas Anderson display this much warmth before, but it looks good on him. With a stunning performance from Alana Haim that captures your imagination, you’re with this from start to finish. This is, without question, one of the most enjoyable films of 2021. Give yourself over to the movie and you’ll be rewarded, as only PTA can do.