Review: Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)

“Anderson invests as much heart and sensitivity in these two as he has in any two characters in his whole career. And that’s what makes the film work.”

How much time takes place in the story of Licorice Pizza?

It’s a deceptively tricky question. Historically, certain events being (very loosely) adapted here take place across six years. There are hints within the film itself that it covers at least three (beyond the logistics of a particular company’s rise and fall, listen closely for a character giving two different answers as their age late in the film, and note too another character’s critical reveal that they have learned how to drive). And yet there are other hints that it all takes place in 1973 (look closely at a marquee in a climactic scene – if you can look away from the glorious, swooning culmination of a particular visual motif).

The answer, I think, is that it simultaneously takes place across three years and no time at all. The vignettes here are like snatches of memories, condensed into one wondrous, unbroken summer of eternal youth by nostalgia and the first flush of love. It’s little surprise, then, that Paul Thomas Anderson chooses to place this story in the Valley, that part of Southern California just over the hills from Hollywood: where else are you going to find such an unending summer, where fame and fortune and adulthood are within sight, but just slightly out of reach?

So this place on the cusp, in this perpetual sun-drenched season, is where Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) first strikes up a conversation with Alana Kane (Alana Haim). He’s fifteen and apparently on the rise, a child star, a born salesman with seemingly endless optimism, full of the belief that the world is his oyster. She’s twenty-five and already on the downward slope, working as a photographer’s assistant with a creep of a boss and a young adult’s exasperated and dreadful realization that in fact the world is not what she and her generation had been promised.

Anyways, they begin to talk. And they keep talking. And the rest of the film – across those three years and that eternal summer – is the rest of the conversation that they keep being drawn back to with each other. Somehow these two born hustlers recognize within each other a mysterious kindred spirit – that they will push each other forward, pull each other a step back, and struggle onwards together towards adulthood. They will encounter washed-up drunken Golden Age of Hollywood legends, bulldozing agents, violent cops, racist restauranteurs, a terrifying coked-up harbinger of New Hollywood, liberal reformers, and much more. And yet somehow it always keeps coming back to Alana and Gary.

As he has matured as a director, Anderson has become increasingly interested in unexpected codependency – the ways two people can connect and bring out odd new qualities within each other, for good or ill. Whether the almost superheroic romance of Punch-Drunk Love, the desperate need to believe and to be believed in The Master, how unfettered capitalism and religious faith feed off each other in There Will Be Blood (until they violently devour each other in the end), the struggle for control of a relationship (and unexpected pleasures of relinquishing it) in Phantom Thread, Anderson is supremely attuned to these strange nuances, how relationships can balance on the point between friendship and love and resentment and a million other tiny things, and how individual each relationship is. So it is too with Alana and Gary as they continue to walk (and run – and oh boy do they run) and talk all across Encino. Is it a deep friendship, a chaste romance of like minds, a gently sarcastic lesson on the disappointments of adulthood, a chance to relive the immortal optimism of youth? Well, it’s kind of all of them at once.

So let’s talk about Alana and Gary, both played by extraordinary young actors making their debut here. As Alana, musician Alana Haim has the trickier role. Alana’s spiky ferocity and outward disaffectedness is concealing a deep well of fear that this is all there is. She is constantly reinventing herself – maybe she’ll be an actor, maybe she’ll work for an inspiring politician – trying to cross over into full independence and maturity. The moments when she thinks she’s found it (whatever it is) are deeply affecting and charming. And when those things fall away and she’s left back where she started, she drops the armor to reveal a powerful sense of exhaustion, anger, and melancholy. Alana exists at the perfect Venn diagram meeting between the hopefulness of youth and the disillusionment of adulthood, and the film’s greatest point of suspense is which way she’ll go. She’s up there with Anderson’s finest cinematic characters, and so much of that is on Haim for selling the absolute tightrope walk that Alana must balance for this film to work.

But let’s not forget her costar. Cooper Hoffman, also making his cinematic debut here, is of course the son of arguably Anderson’s most storied collaborator, the much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman. Gary is the middle ground between two of Anderson’s favorite types of characters, the born romantic and the unrepentant salesman. While the film never really talks about it, it’s no accident that Gary has no father, and indeed serves as father figure to his eight-year-old brother. He acts like the man of the house because he’s had to be, constantly hustling to help provide for his family. He’s essentially a racehorse with the blinders of youth, always running headlong at the next scheme when the current one runs out of juice. He’s simultaneously charming and exasperating, you simultaneously want him to grow up and yet you’re absolutely on the hook for his sheer confidence and never-say-die attitude. It’s no accident that someone as dissatisfied as Alana is intrigued to keep talking with him, even when she rightfully tells him from the outset that this isn’t a romance (and also sees how full of shit he is).

But as good as they are separately, when they’re playing off each other it’s equivalent to a cinematic magic trick. One of the smartest observations I’ve ever heard about film is that movie stars are made in long, unbroken shots where we really get to see them command the screen and do what they do best. So it is here, in the long, glorious opening scene where Gary half-asks, half-dares Alana to come meet him for dinner that night at (the very real Encino establishment) Tail o’ the Cock, as Alana is nominally supposed to be assisting Gary and his classmates get ready for their school photos. While Nina Simone’s “July Tree” plays on the soundtrack, and the camera keeps tracking Alana and Gary as they move in and out of frame, dancing around each other, crackling with wit and charm and chemistry, two movie stars are indeed born.

We’ve already talked about how Anderson uses time in this film. Now let’s talk about the next key: how he uses movement. This is a film of long tracking shots, and a film of shots of people constantly in motion, sprinting to the next hustle. He lets the audience live in those moments alongside Gary and Alana, reinforcing that these memories, these flashes of time are what they will take away out of the hundreds of days like this, all the adventures they share together. But more importantly, these shots and the onscreen motion within create a remarkable sense of cinematic gravity: no matter which direction they move, Gary and Alana are always, always, always drawn back towards each other. Again, and again, and again they run alongside each other, run away from each other, and then turn back and collide once again, a motif that pays off in spectacularly moving and hilarious fashion in the film’s climax.

The film is, by and large, technically impeccable. There is one point where the pacing starts to slow late in the film, but otherwise it flows beautifully from one vignette to the next. The art direction is great (particularly in one spectacular shot craning through an expo of desperate hustlers) without calling too much attention to itself. And the soundtrack is lovely, a great mix of Jonny Greenwood’s charming-yet-ominous score and pop hits. From the above-mentioned “July Tree,” to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” (played thrillingly as Gary runs past cars caught up in the gas crisis gleefully yelling “It’s the end of the world!”), to the concluding Blood Sweat & Tears track “Lisa, Listen to Me,” the music acutely reflects Gary and Alana’s many adventures.

As for those adventures – the memories that will stay with Gary and Alana decades in the future – and the assorted oddballs they encounter along the way. The showiest comes when Gary, Alana, and Gary’s various younger minions must make a waterbed delivery to infamous movie producer/Barbra Streisand boyfriend/cokehead Jon Peters and they encounter the horror movie villain of the year. As Peters, Bradley Cooper is a hilariously terrifying white-clad livewire: Anderson makes incredible use of him unexpectedly popping into frame with a flash of white; even him just suddenly appearing in the background of a scene is explosively funny. This sequence is the one most fraught with danger, as Peters rants and raves and threatens, and Alana must make a very, very difficult truck drive reminiscent of The Wages of Fear. It’s the film’s exhilarating highpoint, and yet one with surprising emotional payoff – and a note-perfect comic button.

While in his earlier career Anderson was accused of trying to ape Scorsese, in his later career Anderson feels far more interested in studying the films of Jonathan Demme, and Demme’s influence extends here to how he treats his cast. More than perhaps any of his peers, he has become exceptionally adept at giving essentially every character on screen a rich inner life no matter how small the role. Sean Penn’s wild appearance as a drunken Golden Age Hollywood legend who is completely out of his mind makes for a terrific payoff (and another instance of Anderson paying homage to his beloved Melvin and Howard). Ringers like Tom Waits, Skyler Gisondo, Harriet Sansom Harris, Christine Ebersole, Maya Rudolph, Benny Safdie, and Joseph Cross make an absolute meal out of brief pop-ins, and the more global work done by Hoffman’s kid friends and the various Haims (yes, PTA gets the entire Haim family to play Alana’s onscreen family – stoner Danielle Haim and grumpy Jewish Dad Haim are especially hilarious) is wonderful. The entire world feels so lived-in, from the smallest bit parts to its leads.

There is one running “gag,” however, that doesn’t land. John Michael Higgins, usually a wonderfully funny actor, is here cast as a deeply racist restauranteur who is so into orientalism that he marries a series of – to him – interchangeable Japanese wives to whom he speaks English in a dreadful mock-Japanese accent. Anderson has said this is based on his own mother-in-law’s experiences, and the subtle payoff is that Alana immediately knows how to properly convey respect when she meets Higgins’ latest wife, but it’s an awful lot of difficult runway to get there.

Another moment when Anderson leans into a negative trope, however, is saved by execution. Late in the film, Alana is asked to essentially perform as a beard in a scene where two gay men argue about their relationship. From this scene, Alana recognizes some truths about her relationship with Gary. This does dabble in the unfortunate cliché of queer pain being used to fuel realizations in straight people. And yet Anderson takes the time and effort to invest this relationship with immense feeling and make it its own story. Alana may figure some things out because of this interaction, but this is not solely a pantomime being played out for her benefit. Anderson’s love of these characters and empathy towards them wins out. It’s instead a scene where Alana briefly drops into another world, one that will continue without her.

Some will (fairly) be turned off by the film’s premise. Again, the relationship between Alana and Gary is essentially a chaste relationship, but it is not one without romantic undertones – and Anderson is deeply aware of how uncomfortable and complicated those undertones are. They are one of the film’s principal drivers of conflict, in fact. The film takes incredible care with the lines it does not cross while still letting their relationship be complex and untidy and yet completely heartfelt. Because Anderson has become so incredibly astute at portraying this level of codependency and inner life, he and Haim and Hoffman pull off the tightrope walk of this relationship and turn it into something rich and strange and utterly compelling. What all three key into here is specificity. It’s in the finer points of characterization and narrative that you get it, you see why these two spark so precisely, one looking back and one looking forward. Anderson invests as much heart and sensitivity in these two as he has in any two characters in his whole career. And that’s what makes the film work.

A final grace note: the phrase “Licorice Pizza” is never said in the film. For reference, “Licorice Pizza” is a nickname for old LP records, coming from an Abbott and Costello routine. “If they don’t buy ‘em as records,” the routine says, “we’ll sell ‘em as food, call ‘em licorice pizza.” That comic entrepreneurial spirit is the animating force of this wildly funny, humane and wonderful film. It’s what drives Gary and Alana as they run endlessly forward, always seeking out the next adventure in their eternal summer of youth, in that permanent 1973 state of mind.

Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)