Licorice Pizza (2021)

“Do you think it’s weird I hang out with Gary and his friends all the time? I think it’s weird I hangout with Gary and his fifteen year old friends all the time.”

About halfway through Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film Licorice Pizza a character says “I don’t speak Japanese” right after speaking to his wife as he says the line with a caricature voice inflection that comes off more racist than comedic. That one line of dialogue plus another moment earlier in the film doesn’t paint a compassionate picture for the actual film nor the characters involved. Plus, that character with several others don’t add much substance to the story – they are just passing through showing the ugly side to 1970’s San Fernando Valley. 

The synopsis of Licorice Pizza as stated on google reads – Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) grow up, run around, and fall in love in California’s San Fernando Valley in the 1970’s. For a synopsis, it’s misleading a perspective viewer. Yes, Licorice Pizza is a coming-of-age film about Gary growing up, and finding love but Alana is 25 with a job. How exactly is she growing up? That point is made the moment Gary and Alana meet during Gary’s school picture day. So overtly racist with a touch of pedophilia – not off to a great start here. Besides those two gripes and missteps with the film, Licorice Pizza is an imperfect love story with two outstanding performances by the lead roles. 

When the film is following Alana and Gary, I was engrossed with the narrative of their blossoming love story. Paul Thomas Anderson perfectly frames each shot of the two when they go through the stages of a romance. Each quick glance, subtle smile, flirtatious line of dialogue is brought to life by Alana and Cooper. You can feel the passion, the butterflies, the happiness of falling in love and the jealousy, the emotionally draining game of cat and mouse the two share. One can’t live without the other even with the age difference, the perspective love trumps all. Alana and Cooper were made for each other. 

Once the two are apart, the film loses any momentum gained, falling from cloud 9 directly to the ground, fcaeplanting on the pavement. it’s as if Anderson hits a reset button and everything begins again. Love isn’t perfect especially involving teenagers, or a teenager, since Alana is closer to 30 than to 20. She’s having a quarter life crisis even entertaining the idea of dating someone 10 years her junior. Alana makes Gary jealous by going out with actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn), dating his friend and fellow actor Lance (Skyler Gisondo), volunteering for Mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (Bennie Safdie), and trying to get his attention when he’s interested in other people. Despite all the attempts to make a teenager jealous, Alana always chooses Gary and Gary always chooses Alana. The two were made for each other.

Gary is a child actor turned entrepreneur starting business after business when the one fails or goes bankrupt. I admire the kids’ ambition; he clearly has a plan for everything and a contingency plan when something doesn’t work out. At first Alana is along for the ride, lost in Gary’s charming charismatic personality.  But as she develops past the generic love interest, Alana comes into her own even surpassing Gary as a likeable character. It’s Alana’s movie, her performance is the better of the two which makes the pairing so outstanding together. Both Alana and Cooper have an infectious chemistry together that I nearly lose any interest in the film when both are apart from each other.  

Licorice Pizza is a horny movie – sexual tension is laced throughout the 133-minute runtime. Whether an inuendo spoken or an actual frame of the film focused on Alana’s body or any female’s body, Anderson doesn’t miss an opportunity to bring that type of energy to the forefront of his film. I half expected the film to be rated NC-17 with the suggestive looks, up-close intimate camera shots but Anderson knows how far to push it and hold back to leave you wanting more. 

Reading this review, it may come off that I didn’t like this film, just the opposite, I adore Licorice Pizza despite the glaring flaws that shouldn’t be ignored. Even with them, I still enjoyed the film, was able to become engrossed with the performances of Haim and Hoffman. No doubt the two will be in the Academy Award conversation along with Anderson. 

The script isn’t as bulletproof as it is suggested to be. Too many characters are emphasized in the trailer but give no actual substance to the story.  In the second act Gary and Alana sell a waterbed to Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) amidst the gas crisis. Beyond being a total psychopath and teaching Gary how to properly pronounce Barbara Streisand’s name, the character is irrelevant. Cooper in his limited screen-time steals every moment especially with Cooper and Alana on screen together. 

A deeply flawed but signs of a brilliant film, Licorice Pizza is sure to be a favorite among PTA fans. The right amount of humor, heart, teen angst and sexual tension fill the narrative up to keep any cinema fan full. Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim are outstanding together and really carry the film on their backs. Even with the period the film takes place in, there is no excuse for the intentional, suggestive character choices and the mockery that comes with it.

Written By: Paul Thomas Anderson

Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson

Music By: Jonny Greenwood

Cinematography: Michael Bauman & Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Tom Waits, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, John Michael Higgins

Release Date: November 26, 2021

Running Time: 2 Hours 13 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%

My Score: 4 out of 5

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