Two years after Quentin Tarantino spared Sharon Tate a gruesome Manson family murder, fellow SoCal auteur Paul Thomas Anderson re-creates the Encino of his childhood with every bit as much affection and attention to detail. Named for the regional record chain where Valley kids got their vinyl — but ostensibly Anderson’s own “Once Upon a Time in North Hollywood (or a few blocks west thereof)” — “Licorice Pizza” delivers a piping-hot, jumbo slice-of-life look at how it felt to grow up on the fringes of the film industry circa 1973, as seen through the eyes of an ambitious former child actor plotting how to follow up his early screen career.
These are not Anderson’s memories, mind you, but those of Gary Goetzman — Tom Hanks’ producing partner at Playtone, whose showbiz career began decades earlier opposite Lucille Ball in 1968’s “Yours, Mine and Ours” — rendered all the more appealing through the “Boogie Nights” director’s colorful imagination and uncanny knack for casting. Rechristened Gary Valentine and played with sweaty-faced chutzpah by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son, Cooper, the 15-year-old character hustles his way through a series of wild, loosely fictionalized adventures from a different, if not necessarily more innocent era in Los Angeles history.
It was a moment in time when an enterprising teenager could open a waterbed business (as Gary G. apparently did, and Gary V. attempts in the film) and find himself delivering a top-of-the-line model to the house Jon Peters shared with then-girlfriend Barbra Streisand — an anecdote that calls for a larger-than-life cameo from Bradley Cooper as the oversexed celebrity hairdresser. “Licorice Pizza” is peppered with run-ins between Gary and various B- and C-list local legends, though the film’s main attraction is a nobody named Alana Kane (musician Alana Haim — remember that name), who steals Gary’s heart the minute he meets her.
“I met the girl I’m going to marry one day,” he declares, and heck if we aren’t rooting for that to happen, absurd as it seems. At 15, boys tend to fall in love every five minutes, but (fictional) Gary is more than just smitten when he meets 20-something Alana in the opening scene.
She works for the photographer snapping the kids’ school portraits, and the age difference alone should put her out of Gary’s league (to say nothing of the laws they’d be breaking). But Alana’s not the one trying to start something with a teenager, and there’s a big difference between the sexist boss who slaps her bottom as she passes and whatever kind of benign harassment Gary’s guilty of. In any case, Alana’s disarmed/charmed enough by this kid’s pathetic attempt at flirting that she surprises him — and herself — by showing up at Tail o’ the Cock, the Studio City restaurant where Gary goes when his working mom’s out of town.
On that first date, Gary’s awkwardness proves endearing for Alana and audiences alike. He can hardly believe she showed up but has zero idea how to proceed. To be clear, there are no sex scenes in “Licorice Pizza,” and yet, Anderson packs it with infinitely more sexual tension than he did late-’70s porn-industry homage “Boogie Nights” — which was about industry bottom-feeders who aspired to making art, among other things, whereas “Licorice Pizza” belongs to the more familiar American tradition of male virgin-angst movies.
With flushed cheeks and real pimples undisguised by makeup, Gary is a raging ball of teenage hormones, but he’s trapped somewhere between playing the gentleman (in a critical scene, Alana lies passed out beside him, and he resist the urge to cop a feel) and not having any game. Every time another guy hits on Alana, Gary seems to turn even redder, and because he’s too immature to know better, he often finds himself retaliating in hilariously (and sometimes poignantly) counterproductive ways.
For her part, Alana treats Gary like a kid brother, even when he technically becomes her boss — which happens early in their hard-to-define relationship. First, he talks her into accompanying him (as adult chaperone) on a publicity junket to New York. But when a humiliating audition makes clear his acting career has run its course, he starts pursuing other get-rich-quick schemes, including but not limited to introducing her to his agent (Harriet Sansom Harris).
After discovering a waterbed on display at a local wig shop, Gary decides to try selling them himself, launching a company called Soggy Bottom (the film’s working title for a time) at a lame local expo where John C. Reilly makes an amusing cameo. When police swoop in and haul Gary away in cuffs, Alana’s there to witness, running all the way to the station to help spring him — the first time we see these two friends sprinting out of concern for each other.
Like Los Angeles to the south, Encino’s a place where it’s hard to get much of anywhere on foot, and just as important to the dynamic as Gary’s complicated emotions is that Alana has wheels. She still lives at home (with her bandmate sisters, Este and Danielle, and real-life parents playing the rest of the Kane family) and nurses ambitions of her own, directing her romantic attention at whomever seems most likely to pluck her from the tedium of her middle-class Jewish existence, be it one of Gary’s underage fellow actors (Skyler Gisondo), bona fide movie star Jack Holden (Sean Penn) or mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie).
It’s not entirely clear how much time passes in “Licorice Pizza,” though not enough for Gary to turn 18, which poses a bit of a challenge to the uneven romance neither he nor Alana is entirely willing to acknowledge, even if it’s apparent to everyone around them. Culturally speaking, the age difference between Alana and Penn’s or Safdie’s character is somehow more acceptable than her hanging around with a kid nearly a decade her junior, but the movie sees it differently. Of all the men/boys in her life, Gary is the only one who’s not a creep, and though he makes more than his share of bad decisions, he’s loyal as a golden retriever.
Through it all, the platonic couple’s exploits allow Anderson and company to pinball around the same stomping grounds he featured in “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” this time with a rowdier, more overtly comedic sensibility, reminiscent of L.A.-adjacent cult classics “Valley Girl” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” The influence of Robert Altman remains strong with Anderson (who served as a “backup director” on the then-octogenarian master’s “Prairie Home Companion”), to the extent that this feels like his most direct attempt at channeling the “M*A*S*H” helmer’s semi-improvisatory approach — a bold tack for someone working with two inexperienced actors in their first lead roles.
But Anderson’s instincts were dead-on in choosing Hoffman and Haim. With their imperfect teeth and relatably real features, these two have a natural unselfconsciousness about them — not Instagram gorgeous, but far more expressive faces to gaze upon in unfiltered 70mm. And the hair! For years, Anderson has been directing music videos and more with Alana and her sisters’ band, Haim, and seems to have intuited what she’s capable of. Like “Heartbreak Kid” rivals Jeannie Berlin and Cybill Shepherd rolled into one, there’s independence in her attitude but a certain amount of vulnerability as well, and it’s one of the central questions of “Licorice Pizza” what exactly she gets out of Gary’s infatuation.
Certainly, he’s the instigator of some of the most unforgettable high jinks of her young life, including a couple of outrageous set-pieces that seem destined to go down in movie history: a spontaneous stunt on a Beverly Hills golf course orchestrated by Tom Waits (as a Raoul Walsh-ian old-Hollywood director) and an epic run-in with Jon Peters that goes downhill in a hurry.
The wild card here is the ensemble of more established actors that surrounds Alana and Gary. (Their fellow kid thesps are fine, given equal billing with the big shots in the end credits.) It sometimes feels as if the director has given them only the vague sketch of a scene and then turned them loose. Bradley Cooper just about steals the show as Peters, while Penn invents a parallel-universe version of William Holden who’s somehow even more diesel-powered than the real thing.
The stars have a way of looming large when they appear — as Peters or Holden or a politician might on plebes — but the mix of tones serves to keep things feeling unpredictable (and at times quite suspenseful) till the end. It’s an Anderson signature to let the camera roll, tracking scenes via Steadicam, and he remains committed here to large-format celluloid, which fits the milieu even better than it did “Phantom Thread” and “The Master.” Those films had a certain cold, calculated quality that’s nowhere to be found in “Licorice Pizza,” with its sunny, shaggy, what-me-worry vibe.
And with a title like that, it will surprise no one that the soundtrack is a smash, from Alana strutting to Nina Simone’s “July Tree” in the opening scene to that final gender-flipped needle drop from Blood, Sweat & Tears: Hers were gentle words he had never heard before. And once spoken, their lives can officially begin.
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