Licorice Pizza: a meandering trip beneath the California sun

Paul Thomas Anderson delivers his most upbeat film to date with a zigzagging story about a rudderless young woman and a wheeler-dealer teen in 1970s Los Angeles.

Cooper Hoffman as Gary Valentine in Licorice Pizza (2021)
Cooper Hoffman as Gary Valentine in Licorice Pizza (2021)Courtesy of Warner Bros

Licorice Pizza is in cinemas now. 

To call Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Licorice Pizza, meandering could be considered an understatement. On one hand, it feels like a river running lazy and low beneath the golden light of the California sun, but on the other, it has a hustler’s energy, and there’s a sense that anything could drift into view around the next bend. It’s a yarn spun to occupy a space somewhere in the vicinity of the shaggy dog story or the picaresque, though neither descriptor quite hits the mark nor conveys the film’s underlying intricacy. Foregoing any specific narrative thrust, it luxuriates in the drawing of vivid characters and a nostalgic, illusory, and multifaceted portrait of a recurring Anderson locale, the San Fernando Valley in California.

This is an almost folkloric evocation of the Valley in 1973, cobbled together from Anderson’s own experiences, local legends, tall tales, and the reminiscences of producer Gary Goetzman, upon whom one of the central characters is partly based. It is a place where post-war prosperity is surging, bona fide movie stars rub shoulders with misty-eyed dreamers, and where a 15-year-old child actor, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) has the gumption to chat up the 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) who works for the company taking his school photos. She’s initially dismissive but is eventually disarmed by his cocksure insistence and performed maturity and ends up accepting his invitation for a drink, apparently despite herself. There is an inherent tension that comes with their age difference and while Alana won’t countenance a romantic liaison with Gary, even with his vocal interest, they have an immediate connection that develops into a deeper affection.

While Licorice Pizza couldn’t feel more distinct from Anderson’s previous feature, The Phantom Thread, the two share a similar structure in that their drama is driven less by external plot and more by the constantly shifting dynamics of the central, oft-prickly relationship. The younger Gary’s precocious business acumen and the older Alana’s arrested development create persistent friction regarding who is the senior party in this partnership. Despite Gary’s entrepreneurial endeavour – at 15 he somehow owns a PR firm, starts a waterbed company, and later a pinball emporium – he’s also a goofy kid who can only order a coke when he takes Alana out for a drink. She, meanwhile, may begin the film feeling directionless but increasingly strains against her situation, desiring a seriousness of purpose.

In an essay about Anderson’s The Master, Geoffrey O’Brien reflected on the director’s preoccupation with a particular American disconnectedness that manifests as hyperactivity, ‘as if keeping frantically busy could stave off a lurking sense of emptiness.’ While Licorice Pizza could quite rightly be described as the director’s sweetest and most upbeat film, this notion of staving off the emptiness seems to remain just as pertinent. An early scene with a casting agency suggests Gary’s days of minor stardom are over, giving his otherwise delightful wheeling and dealing an added layer of poignancy. Equally, Alana’s own forays into the professional world – through an acting gig and then as a volunteer for a political campaign – leave her just as lonely, bereft, or unsure, in a way Gary, even at his most exasperating, doesn’t seem to.

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman as Alana and Gary, Licorice Pizza (2021)
Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman as Alana and Gary, Licorice Pizza (2021)Courtesy of Warner Bros

The wider adult world often serves to ramp up the freewheeling energy of the film as it introduces its minor perilous elements. Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper excel in brief roles in bizarre, brilliant interludes that nod towards the glamour and danger of the looming Tinseltown. There’s always a risk with such attention-grabbing cameos – Cooper and Penn are joined by the likes of Maya Rudolph, Harriet Sansom Harris, Benny Safdie, Tom Waits, and John Michael Higgins – that the audience will leave wishing they’d spent more time with the peripheral characters, but in this instance, they complement the leads perfectly. At points, they trigger protective responses in Alana and Gary, bringing them closer together, sometimes literally via a recurring running motif.

This elevates, rather than distracts from, the central pair, and it helps that newcomers Haim and Hoffman both revel in the limelight. Able to range from gawky to sexy, confident to confused, worldly-wise to wide-eyed in a heartbeat, they’re charismatic and each maintains their own idiosyncratic authenticity. While Anderson deftly balances pace, tone, and style, it’s the charm of the central pair that makes the film so easy and joyous. It’s perhaps a rare thing to say nowadays, but Licorice Pizza could stand to meander even more if it meant spending a little longer in its company.