Despite my near-inexperience with the genre-laden charms within Paul Thomas Anderson’s body of work (working backwards, I have yet to encounter Boogie Nights), I was hooked almost immediately with the motives of his ninth feature. Quite possibly his most down to earth in 30+ years of filmmaking. Licorice Pizza eloquently brings us backwards in time to when capitalism and opportunity shared more than one brain cell, and romance often carried the weight of the world. Between two people who start this story by being far from compatible with each other, they make a fair case for the reverse, falling in love while striking a business partnership. And all while still in high school, no less. Or one of them.
It’s suburban California, 1973. Music sounded better, drugs are everywhere. And for 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman), his opportunistic mindset hopes to quickly turn him, graciously, into the “King of Encino”. By trade, he’s a teenage film star with a rebellious streak. By passion, he’s an entrepreneur in training, taking big chances on a waterbed business, and a pinball arcade around the time when the very game was suddenly decriminalized. He feels at peace with his decision-making, and just as coy with his romantic pursuits.
Enter Alana (Alana Haim), a twenty-something photographer’s assistant with some mild bureaucratic/acting aspirations, whom Gary tries to woo, but she’s not even the least convinced. Instead of there being a direct play for her affections, Anderson settles for a methodical dance of partnership, neither straying too far from each other and yet leaving enough space to live their own lives, with other relationships invading and their own tightrope separating.
Alana has been burned by relationships before, the predatory male gaze often souring a connection. She can’t resist Gary’s allure, however. His cheerful innocence does allow her guard to be lessened momentarily, while confronting the likes of studio system magnate Jon Peters (a rather mesmerizing Bradley Cooper), a differing variation on Hollywood vet William Holden (Sean Penn), and closeted city councilman Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). Much like Gary, played as a fictional spin on the early career of Gary Goetzman, nearly every male counterpart in Alana’s sphere carries a nugget of realism. Not so much Gary’s costar Lance (Skyler Gisondo) who often nudges his way into the conversation with a feigning resentment. It does all circle back to Gary, the steady rock rolling through the naysaying clutter with fits of martyrdom and anxiety, framed for attempted murder, committing justifiable acts of debauchery. Alana might not be fully impressed, but she is intrigued by his candor, or attitude for life.
Contrary to any manner of pushback online social users have claimed, Anderson does not fixate entirely on romance. Licorice Pizza is not directly a romantic tale, and more one that effectively conveys basic human connection on the basis of maturity, from thrill to low-hanging bore. At 25, Alana’s still aiming to break past that limbo versus Gary’s overconfidence. Both Haim and Hoffman (Phillip Seymour’s son) are headlining their first feature here. They know that, and they don’t allow themselves to get caught up in the headwinds of fame. Cooper keeps a very level head with his eccentricity, like a sly cross between Willy Wonka and early-era Kurt Russell. Right away, he lives up to his father’s long-standing legacy, brimming with promise to eventually surpass. Doesn’t necessarily happen here, but it’s difficult to look away. Same goes for fellow newcomer Haim, better known as a musician with her sisters. But her focus and judgment is nothing short of compelling, never once faking her way with the character. She rolls with a million waves of uncertainty, making a big splash on the other side.
When it’s not the strength of character in Anderson’s notebook leaving an impact, it’s the onscreen visual support. There likely was not a moment where the acting wasn’t up to scratch. Cooper in particular, whose furious effervescence may have earned him a slice of the Oscar conversation pie. But I could speak just as expansively on the film’s genuine period look, and sound. A mix of delightful needle drops ranging from Bowie to Wings to original themes by Jonny Greenwood converges with Anderson and assisting DP Michael Bauman’s (Birds of Prey) penchant for outside photography, hugging the essence of Los Angelino twilight. I did get fully swept up, silently singing along to “Let Me Roll It” while the night sky sparkled between Anderson’s leads, amid other key moments that had me possessed with all its pieces linked together.
With a mild optimistic pluck that was inherently missing from the slow calmness of Phantom Thread, Anderson aims higher and reaches the stratosphere. His yarn-spinning has led to a rambunctious, often unpredictable adventure of first loves and best lives. And this is that film for the director, revisiting some familiar 70s territory with its upheavals, its unfortunately casual racism, but also its buried opulence. Hoffman has the latter nailed down, seeking new inroads out of dire situations, escaping with his head toward the sky. There’s a unique cinematic magic to be discovered within the world of Licorice Pizza, a well-written playground by which spontaneous friendship thrills couple with showman’s satisfaction. I found both in an equal share, and then some, holding me to my seat without fail until its finite, bittersweet conclusion. By then, it cannot be denied how its sticks with the mind as one of 2021’s best. Speaking to everyone. But especially the mischief-makers, may they find a new hero to idolize. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Licorice Pizza expands into wide release Christmas Day, December 25; rated R for language, sexual material, and some drug use; 133 minutes.