NOW PLAYING | December 29, 2021

The Sweet-Sour Nostalgia of Licorice Pizza   

Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in "Licorice Pizza."

Licorice Pizza is made up of zany sequences that seem designed a little to ensure we can vividly picture the characters reminiscing about them fondly 20 years on. (Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza.)

Adam Driver, Lady Gaga, and Al Pacino in 2021's House of Gucci.

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heir story begins with a mirror and a comb. Tools in hand, photographer’s assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim, in her film debut) plods down a line of L.A. high school students waiting to get their yearbook picture taken. Her half-hearted offerings for a quick gussying are ignored until she gets to

15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, also making his film debut), who’s clearly more interested in talking up this 25-year-old in a short, tight skirt than giving his already freshly combed hair a careful tease. 

 

Delivered with a baby car salesman’s cheap cologne-scented certainty, Gary’s flirtations are disarmingly confident. So Alana, with half-delighted bemusement, keeps egging him on when he announces he’d like to take her out. His mom (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) won’t mind because she’s on business in Las Vegas right now. And he’ll be able to pay for the date not because he has a good allowance but because — and you know he’s waiting for the reactive “wow!” — he’s gotten plenty of work as an extra over the last few years on things like Under One RoofThis House is Haunted, and The Merv Griffin Show. Maybe you’ve seen him in something. Alana is so taken aback by Gary’s swaggering schmoozing that she agrees to grab dinner despite reservations that this is so weird. 
 

A dysfunctional friendship is born, and from there the 1973-set Licorice Pizza

follows this pair as they improvise success together in the San Fernando Valley. When Gary’s child-actor cachet runs dry toward the beginning of the film, he turns toward faddish entrepreneurship. Since Alana, maybe older than she’s letting on, doesn’t know what the hell to do with her life and is understandably sentimental for those long-past years when things felt more possible and less cruelly indifferent, she accompanies him loyally as he schemes and builds. The burgeoning waterbed market is first exploited — Gary introduces his cash-grab, Soggy Bottom, at a youth fair — then pinball machines become the more enticing niche. Never mind school or how this kid can start businesses so quickly and without legal trouble.
 

The two’s oddball relationship stays platonic (though Gary’s plenty clear he’d prefer it not be that way), and slaloms unpredictably between geniality and hostility. These people alternately go from being best buddies to bitter rivals determined to prove something to the other, Gary usually posturing greater maturity and a sense of well-connectedness and Alana that she is in fact much cooler than this boy who struts around and seems like he himself will never experience being aimless and 25.

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icorice Pizza, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a fun-loving movie — maybe Anderson’s most unreservedly light and hopeful — made up of zany sequences that seem designed a little to ensure we can vividly picture the characters reminiscing about them fondly 20

years on over a dinner-out beginning with “long time, no see.” Remember when we were delivering a water bed to Jon Peters and the truck ran out of gas and we had to drive down the hill backward?, one person might offer when the catching-up starts dulling. Or remember the time Alana had dinner with that famous actor Jack Holden and he did that motorcycle stunt in front of everyone at the bar over a pit of fire and he forgot she was on the back? Licorice Pizza feels more like a meandering series of episodes from a period TV show than it does a movie. (There’s no particular climax.) It’s a colorful mosaic all about forestalling monotonous adulthood and maintaining a semblance of youthful liberation for as long as possible. 

 

Anderson never elevates anything into wholeheartedly nostalgic fantasy. Darkness creeps under everything. The truck sequence is a lot scarier than it is totally funny; the inner miseries of the Peters and Holden approximations (played with demonic relish by Bradley Cooper and has-been sadness by Sean Penn, respectively) are tangibly felt enough to make being around them a little more depressingly bewildering than like being confronted with sentimentalized caricatures. The ruthlessness of the child-acting world of which Gary was at one time a dependable part is blunt. And when he starts his businesses you’re always waiting for everything to fall apart. 
 

Anderson pointedly inserts other things about the era we’d certainly rather not have back to further complicate the reverie. Some are well-realized, like the homosexuality the progressive mayoral candidate for whom Alana briefly volunteers (Benny Safdie) is forced to painstakingly hide to stay in the general public’s favor, or the influence the oil crisis has on the action. And some are not, like an unnecessarily recurring clunky joke involving a white businessman (John Michael Higgins) running a Japanese restaurant that talks to his apparent assembly line of Japanese wives in English with a mocking accent. Why make the point to address the era’s racism but code it as an off-color joke? 
 

The high spiritedness and high energy of Licorice Pizza’s many misadventures don’t always ensure the audience stays as electrified as the people going on them. A little in the Holden stretch, and a lot during the nonetheless fun Peters saga, I couldn’t completely escape into their nuttiness because there’s a fundamental and unshakable why-are-we-doing-this-ness to them. The movie is plainly striving to be a little unfocused, meant to evoke the simultaneously scary and exciting anything-could-happen energy of being young and still willing to do shit you won’t only a few years on. But Licorice Pizza’s quasi-vignettes increasingly struck me less like natural interruptions of can-you-believe-this-is-happening mania and more ways for Anderson to stretch out the film’s length to a reasonable runtime, and make real some cinematic doodles that have maybe been swirling around in his head for years hounding him for a way out. 
 

The doodles are more nurtured than the relationship partially giving them their reason for being after a while. Although we have a pretty good feel for this up-and-down unlikely friendship, I still longed somewhat for a simple extended scene or two with just Gary and Alana talking to each other forthrightly, seriously reflecting on the fears and desires that are for the most part only alluded to. As the movie wears on and the focus drifts more toward fun-to-talk-about hijinks, the characters can feel purely like catalysts for action. They become as decorative as Anderson’s handsomely rendered cultural signifiers. 

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offman, son of longtime Anderson muse Philip Seymour, is a charmer with a refreshing lack of varnish. (Look at his adolescent stockiness, imperfect skin, nervously tended-to swoop hairdo, clothes that wear him rather than the other way around.) But he’s a touch miscast as Gary, a

part that to my eye requires a little more foundational vinegar and youthful sliminess than the cheek-squeezing-affable Hoffman can convincingly muster. Though the character was based on an eventually successful movie producer with whom Anderson once worked — erstwhile child actor and trend-chasing businessman Gary Goetzman — Hoffman’s softness suggests someone headed for a flame-out. 

 

Haim, however, hits you like a moonbeam. She construes the character’s vulnerability and self-loathing with such a palpable ache that you almost can feel her brain tripping over itself, unable to settle into anything like comfort or satisfaction. When the movie gets to its upbeat ending (that I think sabotages the interesting tension between Gary and Alana), it feels abrupt — like the thrown-on conclusion to a film with a not-as-full-as-it-could-be center. But the thrill of seeing a movie star born in Haim makes up for that and the film’s other shortcomings. There’s also a hint of bittersweetness to her work that makes it more special. It sounds like this is a one-and-done project for Haim, whose main focus has always rested on the band to which she and her sisters have devoted their time since they were themselves young and bright-eyed, working about as scrappily as Gary to get a leg up in the music industry. (All members of the Haim family make a collectively memorable appearance in the film; father Moti and older sister Danielle particularly make an impression.)
 

Even though I know my foot impatiently tapped the more Licorice Pizza 

uncoiled, I notice now that the further I get away from it the more my brain starts doing precisely what Anderson probably wanted. Like any treasured memory, the tedium that was undoubtedly there starts fading, and the fun of it all gets louder until it’s all that sticks out. B+