Anytime writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson releases a new film of his around this time, the appropriate reaction is to get excited. And why shouldn’t we? A filmmaker of his status hasn’t disappointed his hardcore fans when he puts out classics like Boogie Nights (my favorite) and There Will Be Blood. His latest feature, Licorice Pizza, had the most complicated task to make me really enjoy it because I wasn’t a fan of his last two: Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread. But the anticipation was growing on me for a while. So, of course, I had to be the last person on Earth to see it in theaters, hoping it would live up to the hype. As it turns out, this was one of the most delightful experiences I’ve sat through all year.
What’s the Story: Set in the San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a 15-year-old child actor who becomes smitten by 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), as she’s there at his school on picture day as the photographer’s assistant. Now too easily impressed at first sight, he convinces her to grab dinner. Soon after, Gary and Alana spark a relationship with each other that takes them on the ambitions and challenges, through a business perspective, politics, and coming across different personalities along the way.
PTA is someone you want to discuss cinema with because you sense he has distinguished taste around everything. But watching Licorice Pizza is what happens when he puts together Boogie Nights, Almost Famous, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to deliver the experience of taking us back to a decade with the most class. At least this doesn’t end in a hilariously bloody way with the latter film. And while it’s easy to classify this as an unimportant film to catch, it captures a sense of discovery of what is going next. While the story itself isn’t the most plot-driven in his filmography, he still put us in the mind of what life was possibly perceived in a time where it felt free until you become fully invested in this world from start to finish. Only he was the right person to make this come to life when the inspiration came from Anderson 20 years ago. He observed what happened exactly with our main characters in the opening and wondered what would’ve happened if the date actually took place. It’s an idea he kept locked in his head for years, along with other stories, to build an incredible script that flowed better than I had imagined. He’s no stranger to having a film taking place in the decade or its central location, and what a move to merge the typical coming-of-age tale with a laidback perspective of watching everyday life.
Every one of his films (even the two I haven’t seen yet) never showcases underwhelming acting from who he works with; that’s a fact. However, the most impressive thing is that the biggest takeaway is this is the first time seeing Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman star in a feature film. Crazy enough, these two absolutely crushed it in their acting debuts in following their characters through the end. Cooper Hoffman is the son of the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who’s been a longtime collaborator of the director in five films, and he seems to be following in his father’s footsteps and I’m all here for it. Just the charm and shire ambition he shows in Gary’s compliments reveals his instincts to what he has to tackle with each idea coming to him. In a sense, I like how he’s both an actor and an entrepreneur where everybody knows his name like he’s a big deal. And most fans will recognize Alana Haim as the young sister in the pop-rock band Haim, which Anderson directed a few of their music videos. The role was specially written for her in mind since they’ve both known each other, but I was not expecting her to be one of my favorite performances of the year. There’s this strong understanding inside the head of Alana, which is someone in their mid-20s finding herself launched into this teenager’s world still figuring out what the world has for her. If she was worried about getting fired midway through filming, she shouldn’t worry. I’d love to see them get more work after this, especially Haim to maybe work on a musical with her older sisters.
Everything about their relationship goes the way that was completely different than what I thought the plot would play out. There’s fantastic chemistry breathing between the two that was realistic to follow as we watched them the entire time. Anderson, behind the camera and the writing, has us understand these are two people that aren’t in a romantic relationship considering the ten-year age gap. Yet, seeing them grow with their driven passion, whether successful or not, doesn’t shy away from how anyone would lead the way to something incredible. While Gary seems motivated with what his path has in store for him, Alana doesn’t know yet, as to why she keeps hanging out with him and his friends. Because nothing says building a partnership then selling waterbeds, a true product of its time.
The experience wouldn’t be the same if you had to watch it at home for the first time since you have to be in awe of the beautiful cinematography by Anderson himself and Michael Bauman to give it an authentic feel of the atmosphere of the ’70s ideally. The film’s progression won’t be for everyone—some minor pacing issues in the second act in my only criticism. But everything is told as if your parents or other relatives tell their past, harkening back to talk about their youth and making us transported back to a time that doesn’t seem too stressful as it is today. Or better yet, take in what Alana and Gary had in what it was like to be in love at a young age. And I didn’t walk in hoping to laugh a ton, but I would go as far as to call this the funniest film this year. The comedic approach wasn’t dry, as it has some hilarious moments through these vignettes that got the biggest laughs out of me. Let’s say a meeting with Harriet Sansom Harris as Gary’s agent going over Alana’s skills and a moment involving a truck couldn’t keep me from not smiling the entire time it was happening.
In terms of the supporting cast, there’s nothing too big in here. Still, I loved the scenes with Skyler Gisondo, Benny Saftie as politician Joel Waches, Tom Waits as director Rex Blau, and Sean Penn as actor Jack Holden made their presence memorable. Another notable name included is Bradley Cooper as Hollywood producer Jon Peters. Even though he really wasn’t in it too much and wanted more of him, his take on the Peters won’t be forgotten in how insane and unexpectedly hotheaded he was to provide the film’s other funny moments. Is this the performance that will finally get him his Oscar? I wouldn’t count on it since he probably had five minutes of screen time. Funny enough, the real Peters produced A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand and Cooper’s version of A Star is Born. What a coincidental connection we have here.
It’s been a while since anything from PTA feels like it can get the rewatchable treatment, ad that’s maybe because Licorice Pizza never leaned on the side of depressing or even boring to sit through. This really wholly made up for my disappointment from his last two efforts in a big way. But what’s essential is this worked on all cylinders to make me fully invested in these characters and walk out in relief on being on the positive side to the reactions. It’s one I can feel like watching again as soon as it’s available at home. But why do all the great films come to Indy last and the end of the year where I’m the last who feels left out in the fun now? Already receiving four Golden Globe nominations and named Best Film from the National Board of Review, this is now a huge contender at the Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Haim for Best Actress (maybe), and I personally want to see Anderson take home the award for Best Original Screenplay.
Overall, Licorice Pizza is destined to be Paul Thomas Anderson’s next classic. Unexpectedly going towards a very authentic vibe, it’s his most laidback film yet. Excellent writing, hilarious, and is led to perfection from Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, respectively. The fear I have is this will be loved for a while, then gets thrown to the side of getting backlash for being cool to hate on. Hopefully, it’ll ride the line of having an excellent reputation for years to come. Right in an hour in, I knew for sure this would definitely be one of my favorites to crack my best-of list.