Film & TV

Paul Thomas Anderson Writes a Love Letter to Cinema in ‘Licorice Pizza’

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Every few years, a movie comes out that rekindles the viewers’ love for movies. 2016’s marvelous “La La Land” brought back the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire musical romances of the 1930s and ‘40s and 2019’s “Parasite” was so monumental, it broke the one-inch barrier of subtitles. 

This year, that movie is Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” a testament to how magical The MoviesTM can be. His ninth feature is a brilliant, euphoric and exhilarating dramedy that will have viewers floating in their seats. 

During school picture day, 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) locks eyes with 25-year-old photography assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and instantly becomes smitten. He smooth talks his way to a date even though she makes it clear she isn’t interested.

After their first meeting, things aren’t what they seem and the two form a special — platonic — bond as they latch onto their dissipating youth in an evolving San Fernando Valley during the 1970s. 

“Licorice Pizza” is a movie about a passion to stay young. Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “Boogie Nights”) based Gary off of his longtime friend and actor-producer, Gary Goetzman, the shenanigans Alana and Gary find themselves in are extraordinary and wildly specific.

The pair start up a waterbed company called Fat Bernie’s Waterbeds, evade producer-hairdresser Jon Peters and his manic behavior and work on Joel Wachs’ mayoral campaign. These locations and vignettes are all “real places from real stories,” according to Anderson. His trademarked episodic narrative style makes for a spirited and entertaining time.

One of Anderson’s best decisions is casting debut actors as Gary and Alana. It’s a risky move that pays off in more ways than one. 

“There’s something really exciting about it. It’s a thrilling feeling […], proud papa feelings,” Anderson said. 

Haim and Hoffman give landmark, towering performances. Hoffman — the son of the late, great and frequent collaborator of Anderson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman — has an affable quality and is immensely charismatic. His talents and confidence are fully on display in the wonderful opening scene, as he tries to woo Alana, reminiscent of Jesse from “Before Sunrise.” 

In the end, “Licorice Pizza” is Haim’s movie.

“It was written for Alana,” said Anderson. “There was only one person I ever considered, it was Alana. She’s the reason the whole thing exists, without question. I mean that. It was thoroughly conceived as a way to have her help tell the story.”

Alana is in a precarious time in her life — she isn’t ready to give up her youth and become an adult. She sees Gary as a portal back to a time where life was enjoyable, not as a romantic partner. It’s important to note the dynamic between Alana and Gary is platonic and, while it’s a tale of young love, it’s a cautionary tale of the dangers and mistakes one makes in what they believe to be love.

It’s a tough character and Haim is truly transcendent in the role. Both her comedic timing and dramatic abilities are impeccable and she fully convinces the audience of her emotions. It’s an award-worthy performance, deserving to be in the pantheon of great coming-of-age roles. Anderson isn’t mincing words when he says he wrote the role for Haim — no other actress could’ve played Alana.

Then there’s the Bradley Cooper (“A Star is Born,” “The Hangover”) of it all as a terrorizing Jon Peters. His sequence is one of the funniest and most tense in the movie and Cooper is a riot — he’s coming for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and rightfully deserves it.

All of Anderson’s movies have great music and “Licorice Pizza” is no exception, capturing 1970s nostalgia. The needle drops in this movie are perfect and it’s because Anderson plans out the major musical sequences during the writing process. 

The moments he’s talking about are phenomenal — Nina Simone’s swoonful “July Tree” opens the movie and Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It” plays during a sweet moment when Gary runs to check on Alana. However, the best musical moment is an incredible scene between the leads as they rest on a waterbed to Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Lisa, Listen To Me” playing in the background. 

The music feels like an extension of the narrative. Anderson says choosing the music beforehand “helps determine camera movements and cutting, storytelling and shot selection.” 

Above all, “Licorice Pizza” is a movie about how scary it is to be an adult. Anderson captures this fear a little too well in this amazing film. Are Gary and Alana in love? No one can say for sure. But the two of them are happy when they’re together and can ignore the pressures of impending adulthood. Sometimes, an escape is all we need. 

“Licorice Pizza,” rated R, is now playing in theaters. 

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