Movie review: ‘Licorice Pizza’

Pima Post

“Licorice Pizza”

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rating: R

Run time: 2 hours, 13 minutes

Showing at The Loft Cinema

“Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie is a charming and sweet coming of age story” is a sentence I never thought would be written or said, but that’s what “Licorice Pizza” is.

Anderson’s films usually involve scenes with Daniel Day-Lewis throwing bowling balls and pins at a preacher-slash-hustler during the early 20th century oil rush in California. Or drug-induced shootouts in a living room with “Jessie’s Girl” and “99 Red Balloons” playing in the background.

“Licorice Pizza,” however, is not a consuming character study nor an intense journey into darkness. It is a fun, hazy and more personal film for the eight-time Oscar-nominated auteur.

It takes place in 1970s San Fernando Valley, California, where Anderson grew up and still resides, and it follows Gary Valentine and Alana Kane as they try to figure out where they fit in life during a fast-changing time.

Both protagonists are played by first-time actors Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, instead of the usual all-time greats Anderson casts for his projects. But since we don’t have any baggage with the two, we’re able to better concentrate on the story instead of fixating on their acting.

Valentine is played by Hoffman, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s son, and his inexperience mixed with his natural acting talent helped him play the role to perfection.

A more experienced actor would’ve been too polished to play the aimless 15-year-old Valentine, but his acting instincts coupled with Anderson’s direction gave Hoffman just the right timing for when to take over a scene. 

Haim is a member of the band HAIM, and even though this was her first movie role, she’s a natural entertainer and it showed. She carries every scene she’s in with a scrappy and headstrong personality that contrasts all the other characters.

Everyone in this movie is trying to make it in show business or politics through smooth talking and networking, but since Haim’s character is an outsider to these worlds, she’s not a social chameleon.

She approaches every situation with her authentic and rough-around-the-edges personality, making her the center of gravity in most scenes.

The movie vacillates between a true story and almost fantasy by design —  It’s inspired by Goetzman’s stories, but also by Anderon’s life growing up in the Valley and around show business during those times. 

Valentine’s character is based on Gary Goetzman and his life in show business, from child actor to entrepreneur (including the waterbed venture). But Anderson very smartly retold Goetzman’s life by patching together their conversations, and this avoids the biopic feel.

“I was telling the story as it was told to me over many years,” Anderson recently said on the Bill Simmons Podcast. He explains how he wanted the audience to feel as if Goetzman was telling us the story at a bar, and he pulled it off.

Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper also play real show business staples from that era. 

Penn plays a caricatured version of actor William Holden, and Cooper plays a wilder version of Jon Peters — the former hairdresser-turned-Hollywood producer and Barbara Streisand’s romantic partner of 12 years.

Penn and Cooper are Oscar-winning and nominated actors for serious roles, but they’re great at comedy; the whole theater couldn’t stop laughing during their scenes.

They jump started their careers with comedic roles, so it’s always fun and nostalgic to watch them reach back to that part of their lives … and a central theme of “Licorice Pizza” is nostalgia.

The movie is shot with cameras and color palettes for a vintage look, and Jonny Greenwood put together an amazing soundtrack full of classic needle drops from The Doors, Paul McCartney, Nina Simone, etc.

All of those filmmaking techniques used by Anderson gave the movie its unique dreamlike quality of living in ’70s San Fernando Valley, but the characters add another dimension that tells a more personal story.

Kane is based on an art teacher Anderson had a crush on when he was a kid, and that art teacher is Haim’s mom. So the platonic crush Valentine has on Kane is inspired by his own crush on Haim’s mom.

He found out who Haim’s mom by serendipity back in 2012 when he started directing HAIM videos, and he now has a friendship with the family, all of whom play Kane’s family in the movie.

Anderson also cast his teenage children and friends as extras for the movie, instead of using actors to play “Valley kids,” he used real Valley kids. And cameos from Dicaprio’s father to John C. Reilly and other Hollywood personalities keep the themes of the film tightly knitted.

Hoffman’s casting also ties into Anderson’s life in a very touching way — his father was a legendary actor and recurring collaborator in the auteur’s films, but he was also a dear friend of his. 

Hoffman continuing his father’s legacy in Anderson’s movies will be a fascinating, and heartwarming story to follow if he decides to start an acting career.

“Licorice Pizza” may not be a masterpiece, but it is the most entertaining and rewatchable movie in Anderson’s catalog. It will likely get him his ninth Oscar nomination for Best Director or Writing, and it will eventually become a classic.

When this movie was announced, many critics were calling it Anderson’s “American Graffiti” or his “Dazed & Confused,” but it’s an offbeat, beautifully told recounting of Anderson’s memory of the Valley and Hollywood in the ’70s.