Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Mary Elizabeth Ellis
Paul Thomas Anderson’s later film, Licorice Pizza, is loosely based on Anderson’s friend Gary Goetzman, a former child actor who also took some strange career turns at different points in his life. Taking that Anderson has created a story about a fifteen-year-old, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), who falls in love with someone ten years older than him, Alana (Alana Haim).
The story feels like a series of shorts that are connected through the two central characters. Gary is a child actor, who is outgrowing that occupation, before moving to owning a waterbed company, then a pinball arcade. Alongside him Alana follows him until she starts to go to auditions and also becomes involved in politics and starts her own path, volunteering at for a campaign office, that at one point feels like it’s going to turn into Taxi Driver. Inside the bigger stories are small moments that feel just as random as the big changes in Gary’s life, at one point he’s arrested on suspicion of murder, and one of the waterbeds they delivers is to producer Jon Peters, who is played by Bradley cooper.
The central characters are incredibly authentic and feel like real people. Both Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim give excellent performances that are full nuance. It’s hard to believe that this is the first film that either of them has appeared in. Bradley Cooper is also amazing as Jon Peters, who is portrayed as a bizarre and sinister character. He’s brilliant and the segment that he’s in is the highlight of the film. There are also stellar performances from Sean Penn, Tom Waits and Benny Safdie, in the small portions they appear in.
So much happens in the story at different points, and you’re never sure where it’s going next. Because of this at times it does start to feel very aimless and is heading towards tedium. It’s so quick paced that it never gets boring, but it comes close at points. It also feels like there are parts that are missing, where time jumps happen. It’s a little jarring in places. Gary is told by his mother that she can’t take him to New York for the press tour, and he would need a chaperone, and then the next moment Gary is on the plane with Alana. You don’t see him ask her to go, which would have been interesting. It’s worse later in the film, one moment they are discussing how an oil crisis will stop waterbeds from being made, the next moment they are loading up a van and it’s not clear what’s going on until they get to Peter’s house to set up a new bed. It happens in other places as well, and does make you feel out of the loop a little.
The biggest hurdle with the film is the relationship between the two characters. Gary is fifteen and Alana is twenty-five. At first, she makes it very clear that they aren’t dating, but that line is blurred further and further as the film progresses. There are clear boundaries between the characters, which makes it easier to accept, but it’s still something that’s never completely dealt with. Despite the age gap in numbers, in feels very blurry between them. Gary may be fifteen but acts with the confidence of someone a lot older. He’s charming to almost everyone he speaks to and is always trying to find new careers paths in life to make money, while contrastingly Alana is a lot more immature, she’s ten years older but stuck in a dead-end job until Gary offers her something different. Aside from a few short moments in the film, their age doesn’t really matter and they’re not really a couple, even if it does feel that way throughout.
Licorice Pizza is a nostalgia fuelled look at the 1970s, with great sets, costumes and some classic songs. The cast is excellent and while the film does meander at points, it’s elevated by Cooper and Haim who are both beyond excellent. It may not be the most essential film to start the new year with, but it’s has some great moments.
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