A film review by Craig J. Koban February 20, 2022


2021, R, 134 mins.

Alana Haim as Alana Kane  /  Cooper Hoffman as Gary Valentine  /  Sean Penn as Jack Holden  /  Tom Waits as Rex Blau  /  Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters  /  Benny Safdie as Joel Wachs

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

There was a time back in the mid-to-late 90s when  I sincerely thought that Paul Thomas Anderson was poised to become one of the greatest American filmmakers of his generation.  

In some respects, he achieved that.  

After an auspicious debut with HARD EIGHT, he segued into two of the best films of the decade in question BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA that all but cemented my prognostication.  But I grew hard on him after that - perhaps due to the crushing weight of expectations - and loathed his experimental picture in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE and was left a bit jaded by THERE WILL BE BLOOD (both masterful and unwieldy in equal measure).  Then came technically astounding, but emotionally distancing efforts like THE MASTER and the endurance test that was INHERENT VICE and I was starting to ponder if this wonder kid from California had lost his directorial mojo. 

Considering that he established his stature among filmmaking royalty so early in his career, each new Anderson-ian effort was an unqualified event film for me, which made it all the more crushing that his 2000s resume left a lot to be desired.  Then along came PHANTOM THREAD, which returned Anderson to the classic form of his early years and left me wanting more.  This long prologue, or sorts, finally brings me to his oddly titled LICORICE PIZZA (actually named after a Southern California chain of now defunct record stores, but oddly never referenced or explained in the film), which sort of brings his whole career full circle with BOOGIE NIGHTS by returning to the decade and place of his roots in late 1970s San Fernando Valley.  Loosely based on real life producer (and friend of Anderson's) Gary Goetzman, LICORICE PIZZA is a lovingly realized and gorgeous evocation of a California of yesteryear as well as a coming of age drama cross morphed with a young adult romcom.  I definitely believe that it's a finer effort than most of his aforementioned films from the last decade, but I regrettably found it to be a step down from the meticulous surgical precision and late career greatness of his bravura PHANTOM THREAD, not to mention that its narrative is, at times, too long, too meandering, and too thematically thorny and problematic.  

Anderson opens his film with one of the strangest meet cutes in recent movie history.  In a late 70s high school we're introduced to Gary (Copper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a once regular Anderson alumni), who's in line to get his yearbook photo taken.  He soon locks eyes with Alana (Alana Haim), who's not a student, but rather working with the photographer on scene.  We very quickly learn that (a) Gary is just 15-years-old and (b) Alana is ten years his senior, but for some reason she isn't instantly turned off by his advances and flirtatious banter.  Gary has a young hustler's spirit, to be sure, but he's congenial minded and fairly razor sharp in his sophisticated wit, which frankly surprises Alana (she also doesn't completely back away his inappropriate offer to take her out on a date).  Gary is quite smitten and in love with Alana, but she doesn't reciprocate those feelings back.  She's more driven to go out with this guy out of sheer curiosity, not to mention that she finds him compellingly smart and savvy.  Gary is convinced that Alana will one day be his bride.  She, of course, laughs it off, but she can't explain in words why she continues to hang out with this love sick puppy and his friends and family in the days and weeks to come. 



Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that Gary was once a promising child actor that got his feet in the door of Hollywood, but hasn't quite broken back in yet as a teen.  She journeys with him to a TV taping, but not as his girlfriend, but rather as his travel chaperone.  Despite his obvious interest in her, she keeps him at a romantic distance, but nevertheless allows herself to become more fully entrenched in his world and pursuits (more than anything, she just admires his unbridled enthusiasm and confidence).  Realizing that TV and the movies won't be a part of his future, Gary decides to take a crack at entrepreneurial ventures like, for instance, starting a waterbed company (remember those?).  Alana becomes his business partner, but, again, not an intimate one, even though she's oddly attracted to him.  Age differences between them begin to unstably morph into games of mutual one-upmanship, which starts with Alana trying to become an actress herself and getting far too cozy with an actor/producer (played well in an all-too-brief cameo by a rascally Sean Penn, portraying a fictitious version of William Holden).  Both Gary and Alana are met with the sting of career setbacks in varying degrees, with the elder Alana feeling hopelessly trapped in a rut of her own waywardness, living at home with her parents, pushing thirty and with no long-term career goals, and, yes, in a relationship with a boy way, way too young for her. 

The character dynamics (and questionable dynamics as well) make LICORICE PIZZA an intriguing companion piece to PHANTOM THREAD is many respects (both films are about unstable relationships).  Gary is not a sleazebag.  He's a nice teen that just happens to be attracted to an older woman, and he certainly radiates more maturity and poise than most youth of his age.  Even though his courtship of Alana is stymied throughout LICORICE PIZZA, they still manage to have a partnership driven by their desires to get ahead in life, and they help each other out on their respective emotional journeys.  Gary needs Alana to help nurture his ambitious business goals to become a power player, whereas Gary helps Alana discover who she is and what she ultimately wants (granted, she stumbles an awful lot in this respect).  LICORICE PIZZA has been advertised as a coming of age romcom, and it does contain elements of both, but it should be noted that we never really see Gary and Alana occupy a normal boyfriend/girlfriend hemisphere here...at least under normal definitions.  To his credit, Anderson never really crosses an indefensible line with this very chaste relationship.  He seems more compelled by the awkward day-to-day struggles of these lost souls trying to gain understanding, acceptance, and a feeling of belonging and being needed by the other.  There have been numerous age-gap romance films before, but very few like this that rarely feels slavish to genre troupes.  I'll give LICORICE PIZZA top honors for never going down predictable storytelling roads with this couple. 

Still, having said all of that, LICORICE PIZZA is entrenched in a story of an adult being involved with a minor.  Both Gary and Alana are deeply insecure people, to be sure, despite their age differences, but their union is, when all is said and done, all kinds of wrong.  Gary's infatuation with her stems from most male adolescent fantasies about conquering older women.  Her attraction to Gary is, initially at least, not sexual, but more emotionally clingy.  To her, Gary represents a person that seems to have everything in life meticulously plotted out, and that's alluring to her, seeing as she woefully bounces from job to job.  They require each other in their lives, although nothing really good could materialize from their romantic union.  Again, Gary and Alana's relationship is anything but one-note (it's complicated and dicey), but that doesn't make it any less distracting and unethical (incidentally, both Hoffman and Haim are technically adults in real life, with him being 19 and her being 30).  It would be curious to see how the reaction to LICORICE PIZZA would have been if the gender of the characters were reversed.  I think the icky cringe factor of the central storyline here would have been through the roof.  I'm not entirely sure that Anderson, in spite of his noble best efforts here, can completely reconcile this facet of the film. 

Still, Hoffman and Haim - both making their feature film acting debuts - are astonishingly good here (Haim has worked with Anderson before - he has directed videos of her indie rock band HAIM).  Hoffman has a tricky performance challenge here in making Gary come off as slick and assured, but not obtrusively slimy and with hidden and guarded vulnerability.  Haim is the film's real find and, on paper, Alana is given the most dimension and weight as a woman well into adulthood that finds herself trapped in an arrested development phase that she can't get out of.  There's not an inauthentic beat in her performance (lending verisimilitude is the fact that her real life sisters and parents play her family in the film, which is highlighted in one of the funniest scenes when she brings home an age appropriate date for Friday night shabbat dinner, which ends spectacularly bad).  The supporting cast around them - in roles both broad and small - are exceptional as well, with one of the standouts being a completely unhinged Bradley Cooper playing the dangerously unstable and unhealthily hedonistic Hollywood producer Jon Peters (uh huh, the same hairdresser-turned-producer that once dated Barbara Streisand and went on to produce 1989's BATMAN).  He's in the film briefly, but his manic turn gives it an unpredictable hilarious edge. 

Maybe this leads into one of my other criticisms of LICORICE PIZZA: It's shapeless and all over the map at times and struggles to find connective tissue.  At its core, Anderson has made a near two and half hour hang-out flick, which often feels much longer than its actually self-indulgent running time and leads to struggles in terms of wrapping things up and coming to a conclusion.  Some segments work brilliantly as pieces of keen observation about flawed human nature and others are remarkably funny in their sheer absurdity.  But many of these abrupt tonal shifts don't marry consistently together, leaving LICORICE PIZZA feeling like it has a personality disorder.  And some of the source of comedy here falls awfully flat, like a walk-on appearance by the usually hilarious John Michael Higgins playing a friend and potential business partner for Gary that runs a Japanese restaurant with his Japanese wife, despite not speaking Japanese and being a toxically casual racist that changes spouses more than I do socks.  His moments in the film are mercifully fleeting and are not nearly as funny as Anderson thinks they are. 

I haven't given enough due credit for how amazing LICORICE PIZZA looks, and Anderson shares a director of photography credit with Michael Bauman (they shot the film on traditional 35mm stock, which is absolutely crucial to giving their period specific film a textured and grainy nuance that makes it come off like it was actually shot in the 70s).  Anderson has made some of the most awe inspiring long takes in cinema history, and his fondness for them are entrenched in LICORICE PIZZA as well in constructing a time capsule piece that instantly immerses us in a California of decades-past.  This is not the first time that he's afforded us a vision of the San Fernando Valley (see BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA), but here there's a bit more of a romanticized sheen to the imagery.  Kind of like what George Lucas did with AMERICAN GRAFFITI, Anderson has made LICORICE PIZZA serve as a love ballad to a specific time and place in California that he implicitly knew from his youth.  And while watching LICORICE PIZZA I felt transported to its world and rarely felt like it was the product of movie fakery.  That's a hard feat to effectively pull off. 

My review for Anderson's film has been a bit all over the place (kind of like the film itself).  In terms of its controversial love story angle, LICORICE PIZZA is more about a woman trying to find her identity and her ultimate purpose in life than it is about an unsuitable love story between a 15 and 25-year-old.  But, yeah, it's hard to dismiss how some may respond to this romance tale itself.  I don't think that Anderson tries to shamelessly sensationalize it, but his end game and follow-through on it will definitely leave viewers asking legitimate questions.  I did appreciate the unshackled ambitiousness of LICORICE PIZZA and its technical and performance virtuosity, but it pushed me away at a distance as much as it lured me in.  I have to conclude that this doesn't represent Anderson firing on all cylinders that I know he's capable of, and some of his past creative discipline seems frequently absent here.  But as a pure nostalgic trip into the past as an atmospheric travelogue picture (albeit, with a creepy relationship plot that - for better or worse - unnervingly underlines it all), LICORICE PIZZA is as good as any that have come before it.  This just so happens to be a film that grasps for greatness, sometimes attains it, and then falls disappointingly back down to earth.

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