Licorice Pizza is writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s second ode to Los Angeles in the early 1970s: A city freshly under the oppressive shadow of the Manson Family murders and the tail end of the Vietnam War. But while in his first tribute, Inherent Vice, the inquisitive counter-culture affiliate Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) earnestly engages with his surroundings and follows the threads of societal paranoia all the way to vampiric drug smuggling operations and FBI conspiracies, Licorice Pizza’s protagonist, 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), refuses to follow any such thread. A bored, directionless photographer’s assistant, Alana nonchalantly rejects any easy plot-point that might help us get a grasp on her character. What are her ambitions? She doesn’t know, she tells successful 15-year-old actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) over dinner at a restaurant called Tail o’ the Cock. What interests and excites her? It’s hard to say.
Alana is our key to understanding the winding roadmap that is Licorice Pizza. Not only does she tease our expectations to their very limits, the film itself reflects this poking and prodding act. As soon as we begin to imagine that Alana is starting to enjoy her role as a seductress figure for Gary to chase after, she asks to be his business partner instead. We start to believe she might act as a more mature and put-together figure for Gary to look up to, but then she blows a couple of job prospects. When Gary first approaches Alana while she’s working picture-day at his high school, it’s hard to imagine that Licorice Pizza isn’t going to follow the playful design of a sunny Southern California love story. Alana is instantly strange and striking, and—when Anderson introduces her in a languid dolly-shot with a mini-skirt, kitten-heels, slumped shoulders and a gloriously pissed expression—we are compelled to fall in love with her, just like Gary does, at first sight.
Of course, Anderson quickly rejects the notion that Licorice Pizza is going to be a straightforward romance. Or a comedy. Or a coming-of-age story. Or anything, really. Up until its very last moment, the film breaks open and challenges classical storytelling conventions. Anderson confidently skips over the moment when Alana, who up until that point had been dismissive of Gary because he is “twelve years old,” agrees to chaperone him on a trip to New York, but delves into the banal minutiae of what makes a waterbed a waterbed, or the motion that made pinball machines legal. This defiance mimics the ebb and flow of real life and the awkwardness of youth, and is precisely what makes Licorice Pizza the greatest film of the year.
Anderson knows that this ambling, disjointed structure reflects what it’s like to be young, awkward and in love. The Oil Crisis of 1973, for example, acted as the genesis for an epic onslaught of problems in L.A.: People didn’t have gas to get around in a driving city, businesses that relied on oil suffered greatly. But when Gary learns about it, he doesn’t react like it’s a catastrophe. Instead, he runs grinning down the street beside a row of parked, gasless cars with David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” blissfully playing in the background, and it makes perfect sense, because let’s face it, teens in love take care to make every little moment about their relationship. A similar contradiction in action arises when rowdy actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn) reenacts a motorcycle stunt in front of a cheering crowd: As Jack hurtles toward his fiery stunt, Gary sprints in the other direction, toward Alana. And of course, Gary and Alana’s relationship itself embodies the youthfulness Anderson continually conveys. Although there is a mutual attraction, the two always seem to be functioning on slightly different wavelengths. They attempt to make one another jealous at ineffectual moments and flirty, teasing fights turn into full-on arguments. It is never fully clear to us outsiders what the attraction between them really is. What is it that Alana gets from being friends with someone ten years younger than her? And why does Gary always return to Alana even when she tries her best to put him down? Like gleefully gliding through the streets of L.A. in the midst of a city-wide crisis, it’s a madness you can only truly understand when you’re living it.
But this isn’t just a love story between Gary and Alana. It’s also a love story between Anderson and his characters. Gary’s confidence is forceful, but never cloying. Instead of leaning into his role as a boy who is interesting because he is navigating young stardom in L.A., Hoffman emphasizes his unrestrained youthful optimism. His gentle attentiveness and soft self-assuredness recalls his late father’s performance as the tender-hearted hospice nurse in Magnolia who sits atop the jam-packed collection of Anderson’s greatest characters.
And then there’s Alana. Alana, Alana, Alana. If we’re going to talk about Anderson’s greatest characters, then let’s just say that Alana can give just about any of them a run for their money. Haim plays Alana with the acute sensitivity and frustration of a young woman caught in the midst of teendom and adulthood. With every withering look, every eye-roll, every clumsy, unselfconscious strut and candid smile, Haim embodies the vibrations of the violent push and pull involved in growing up. The casting of Haim, too, reflects as much care as the casting of Hoffman: Anderson has been making music videos with Haim’s sister-band for years now, and their mother was his elementary school art teacher—talk about a longing for youth!
Licorice Pizza’s side characters work as exemplary foils for the two youngsters by exhibiting the cynicism of the adulthood they go to great lengths to avoid: Bradley Cooper’s show stopping, mad-eyed and absolutely unhinged performance as infamous film producer Jon Peters paints a compelling picture of the bizarre, ever-changing L.A. that Alana and Gary navigate; Tom Waits powers into the second act (I almost cheered when he walked on screen) with his famous grizzled voice to adds a similar kind of pizzaz.
But Anderson doesn’t just breathe life into Licorice Pizza’s unusual story through his characters. Each shot, filled with dreamy pastels, glows with a youthful nostalgia. Anderson and cinematographer Michael Bauman balance out this haziness with a unique control of the camera, implementing long takes, slow dollies, and contemplative pans galore. The soundtrack also expresses this youthfulness: Anderson returns to his Boogie Nights jukebox glory days and jam-packs the soundtrack with 1970s hits, which are just as gracefully jumbled as our protagonists. When “Peace Frog” by The Doors starts to play, for example, the audience is plunged into a state of youthful coolness, while the sexy flutes of Nina Simone’s “July Tree” inevitably make us yearn for a flirtation of our own. It wouldn’t be a PTA joint without longtime musical collaborator Jonny Greenwood, too, who conceived the film’s cues. The nostalgia of Greenwood’s magical plucked guitar strings and blossoming orchestras beautifully tie the film together.
Licorice Pizza is more than just a movie. It’s a delectable, playful, sentimental reminder of what it means to be young, as well as an embodiment of what it feels like to grow up. Anderson takes all of the things that have made his previous movies beloved: The nervous energy of unrequited love (Boogie Nights’ Scotty), the torture of desire (Phantom Thread and There Will Be Blood) and a highly stylized kick of nostalgia (Inherent Vice), and smashes them all, creating something glorious and unique from the pieces. Not only is this film a loving ode to cinema, but it’s also a reminder of why we have it in the first place.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie
Release Date: November 26, 2021
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.