Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film “Licorice Pizza”, which recently received 3 Oscar nominations including the one for Best Picture, is his sweetest work since “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002). At first, the movie seems to be just another familiar mix of coming-of-age drama and romantic comedy with some dose of nostalgia, but then it smartly avoids rote genre clichés and conventions as freely bouncing from one episodic moment to another along with its two different main characters, and it eventually becomes more humorous, charming, and poignant than you may expect at the beginning.
Set in the San Fernando Valley area of the LA county, California in 1973, the movie opens with an offbeat variation of Meet Cute moment between its two main characters. When he is preparing for his high school picture day along with his schoolmates, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) comes across a young woman working as the photographer’s assistant, and he is instantly smitten by this lass even though she is 25 while he is only 15. Although she is just mildly amused by his innocent approach at first, Alana Kane (Alana Haim) subsequently lets herself getting involved more with him, and that is the beginning of their unusual relationship.
While Alana still puts some distance between Gary and herself, they become close friends instead, and she gladly functions as a babysitter/chaperon for him whenever his mother is too busy with her work. Gary has occasionally worked as a child actor, so we later see him flying to New York City along with Alana for participating in one TV show performance led by a popular actress who is clearly the fictional version of Lucille Ball, and we get a little amusing moment when he tries to throw one naughty joke for Alana right in front of the camera.
However, Alana and Gary soon find themselves drifted from each other when one of Gary’s fellow child actors shows his interest toward her, and that hurts Gary’s feeling a lot, though they remain close to each other despite that. When he decides to start his own small business, Alana willingly participates in his business operation, and we get another big laugh when she boldly attempts to try to sell his product to one hesitating customer on the phone.
Meanwhile, she also decides to try on movie acting career, and Gary is certainly willing to help her a bit, but that does not go so well as he and Alana come to argue with each other on how much she is ready to show herself in front of the camera. They become distant to each other again after one brief but hilarious moment, and that is how Alana finds herself getting involved with an aging actor who is apparently the fictional version of William Holden. Although he has rarely tried comedy since his Oscar-nominated comic turn in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999), Sean Penn demonstrates that he can be really funny, and his cameo appearance is further enhanced by the brief but equally uproarious appearance of Tom Waits, whose character is somewhere between Mark Robson and John Huston.
As its two main characters continue to revolve around each other as before, Anderson’s screenplay keeps doling out small comic moments as usual. In case of the sequence involved with a supporting character drolly played by Bradley Cooper (This character is based on a real-life film producer Jon Peters, who, as mentioned in the film, was Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend around that time), the mood becomes a bit tense, but then there comes an unexpectedly thrilling payoff moment, which I will simply let you see for yourself without spoiling your entertainment at all.
While things eventually become a bit more serious during its last act, the movie still maintains its lightweight tone under Anderson’s masterful direction. He and his co-cinematographer Michael Bauman vividly and tenderly establish the authentic period mood on the screen, and the resulting ambiance is further elevated by its wonderful soundtrack, which deftly utilizes a number of recognizable old pop songs from the 1970s as well as the sparse but gentle score by Jonny Greenwood (He had a very productive year as also working on “The Power of the Dog” (2021) and “Spencer” (2021), by the way)
The movie depends a lot on the charm and charisma of its two lead performers, and they constantly click well with each other throughout the film although they never acted before. Cooper Hoffman, who is incidentally the son of late Philip Seymour Hoffman, demonstrates here that he is a good actor with considerable potential, and it will be interesting to see whether he will have a solid acting career just like his father. On the opposite, Alana Haim, who has mainly been known for her pop rock band Haim, imbues her character with enough spirit and pluck, and I sincerely hope that we will see more of her acting talent in the future.
While reminiscent of many other similar films such as George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” (1973), “Licorice Pizza” is as distinctive as you can expect from a Paul Thomas Anderson film, and it surely reminds me again of how unpredictably interesting his filmmaking career has been during last two decades. After “Punch-Drunk Love”, there came “There Will Be Blood” (2007) and “The Master” (2012), and then they were followed by “Inherent Vice” (2014) and “Phantom Thread” (2017), and now he takes another turn to our delight and entertainment. I do not know where he will go next, but I am sure that he will interest us as much as before.