Licorice Pizza is the latest film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. This coming-of-age drama-comedy bravely gives big screen debuts to Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. Alana plays a character of the same name; in fact, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote Licorice Pizza with Alana Haim in mind to star. The other half of the odd relationship at the centre of this movie is Gary Valentine, portrayed by Cooper Hoffman, son of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who worked with Paul Thomas Anderson in multiple films in an illustrious acting career – so that is a nice touch.
The film’s principal focus is the rollercoaster relationship between Alana and Gary and the adventures they get up to in the absurdness of 70s LA. A much-talked controversy of Licorice Pizza is the age difference between the couple, which is disclosed early in the film – Alana is 25 years of age, and Gary is 15 when they first meet. Their relationship/friendship is not built on their age; what brings them together is that they are at similar crossroads in their lives and dealing with these challenges differently. Without a doubt, they’re both misfits, insecure and unsure of their place in the world. Gary is a child actor/entrepreneur ahead of his years who goes through multiple business ideas within this film. Alana is frustrated in a job she hates and in a rut. Gary isn’t just a friend or love interest; he also represents an opportunity that’s missing in her life, and he inspires Alana in that regard. Gary seems to be looking after his younger brother, and we don’t see his mother in their home whilst Alana is living with her parent and two sisters. So Gary has more responsibilities and determination despite being younger.
The two central performances were outstanding, considering they were debuts. Cooper Hoffman did a superb job accentuating Gary Valentine’s charisma and confidence of somebody years ahead but still has an immature edge that served as a reminder that he was a teenager. On the other hand, Alana Haim was fantastic at playing a misfit and somebody enticed yet uneasy with the way her journey with Gary was going – she was also hilarious and had some great lines and quips during the film.
Licorice Pizza is set in Los Angeles during the 70s. It contains real-life Hollywood characters being written into the story. Bradley Cooper plays Jon Peters, portrayed as a sex-fuelled, volatile egomaniac. Sean Penn plays a character based on actor William Holden and Tom Waitts plays Rex, a character based on a Hollywood director. Following some drunken discourse, Holden takes part in an Evil Kenevil style motorcycle stunt. These extended scenes that detour from the main narrative and feature these eccentric Hollywood personalities emphasise the absurdity of this era in LA. There was even a cameo from Leonardo Di Caprio’s father, who played a waterbed salesman – surely an acknowledgement of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s influence on this movie
The soundtrack also reinforces the 70s LA world that Anderson does a fantastic job of building. The particular highlights are Paul McCartney & The Wings – Let Me Roll It, and it’s always an absolute treat hearing Bowie – Life On Mars weaved into a film. The stellar soundtrack is accompanied by a score written and performed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. This is the third film Greenwood has scored this year, adding to Spencer and Power of the Dog; I expect he’ll be picking up an Oscar in late March.
Like all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, an engaging narrative is assembled on an immersive and precise setting – Licorice Pizza does a tremendous job of oozing the 70s LA flavour that it needs to. The way Anderson also used the lighting in the film, often he used the low beaming sun to cut right through the scene, again a subtle reminder we’re in California.
Even narratively, Andersons merges historical events into the story to create the world. Gary overhearing that pinball machines will be legalised pricks his entrepreneurial ears, and he ends up setting up Fat Bernie’s Pinball Palace. There is also a thrilling and tense scene in which the gas shortage results in Gary and Alana’s lorry running out of petrol at the worst possible moment whilst at the top of a hill. Alana lifts the handbrake and steers the truck backwards down the hill to safety. These creative set-pieces again reinforce the context in which this story is taking place.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography is becoming well-rounded, and he has added another stellar film to it. It was courageous that he handed lead role debuts to Alana Haim and Cooper Seymour. Still, it’s also very fitting when you consider his previous collaborations, which makes Licorice Pizza a kind of ‘PTA Family’ movie. He’s worked with Haim and Johnny Greenwood before, and it seems perfect for Cooper Hoffman to begin his acting career with the director his father worked with so much.