In Licorice Pizza everyone’s constantly running—sprinting down sidewalks, across golf courses, through hallways—racing across the screen, going everywhere and nowhere all at once. And Gary (Cooper Hofman) and Alana (Alana Haim), the lead characters, run more than anyone.
Gary, played by the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a long-time collaborator and close friend of the director, Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love), is a 15-year-old high school student with enough side gigs to make a millennial jealous. But he functions more like a twenty-something huckster; an adult stuck in a world full of kids. This is compounded by the fact he has to help raise his little brother because his mom, Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), works nights. Gary doesn’t know exactly what he wants, but he knows he’s destined for more beyond his hometown…
Alana, played by Alana Haim of the band Haim, is a “25”-year-old photographer’s assistant who keeps running up against barriers, both at work and at home. (Her family is played by her entire real-life family, including her sisters and bandmates). She feels like a kid stuck in a world full of adults, hoping for a ticket out of town.
Gary and Alana meet at Gary’s school picture day in the opening scene. The camera, the leads, and a number of background extras are already fully in motion. Despite Gary’s forward and confident advances, Alana turns him down, mainly because he’s a high schooler. But the duo’s immediate connection, regardless of Gary’s intentions, signals something deeper than surface-level romance. Both are stuck between two different worlds, with their eyes trained and their hearts set on somewhere else.
Gary’s character was heavily inspired by former child actor and current film producer Gary Goetzman. He’s seen auditioning for roles he’s clearly grown out of, where he’s literally surrounded by children, and which is made known by the people conducting the auditions—including Anderson’s wife Maya Rudolph. Between the appearances of Rudolph, the entire Haim family, Anderson and Rudolph’s own children, and Hoffman himself (who grew up around Anderson), the Licorice Pizza set was a legit family affair, and it shows. The vibe throughout is relaxed and easygoing, much more so than any of Anderson’s previous films.
This is definitely Anderson’s own hangout movie. He’s said in interviews that he was inspired by the likes of American Graffiti (1973), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), and the Richard Linklater films Dazed and Confused (1993) and Everybody Wants Some!! (2016). Licorice Pizza certainly shares DNA with those classics, as Alana and Gary spend the summer of 1973 dancing around the San Fernando Valley (Anderson’s beloved home and frequent setting for his films), hopping from one aimless vignette to another.
But unlike those aforementioned influences, here there’s a more foreboding, dark undercurrent beneath the seemingly nostalgic, painstakingly recreated atmosphere. Old Hollywood is giving way to New Hollywood. Nothing is quite what it seems and every corner of the industry and beyond has its own set of frustrations and letdowns. The movie it often reminds me of is Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), another hangout movie with a more obvious darkness infiltrating the nostalgia of the era in between two Hollywoods.
The jumping around allows Anderson to populate Licorice Pizza with his usual collection of fascinating, complex, and hilarious oddball supporting characters—this time including real figures like Hollywood agent Mary Grady (PTA veteran Harriet Sansom Harris in a gut-busting performance), politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn as a thinly-veiled version of screen legend William Holden), and actress Lucy Doolittle (Christine Ebersole as a version of Lucille Ball). Figures as wide-ranging as musician Tom Waits and publisher George DiCaprio (Leo’s father) pop up throughout. Booksmart (2019) standout Skyler Gisondo is also a riot as Gary’s acting rival Lance. But the real scene-stealer is Bradley Cooper as film producer, hairdresser, and boyfriend of Barbra Streisand Jon Peters. Cooper’s fully unhinged in the film’s best sequence, which involves the delivery of a waterbed that is truly Buster Keaton-esque.
Even while surrounded by all these established talents and movie industry veterans, Haim and Hoffman more than hold their own as first-timers. The two actors infuse their characters with a richness and physicality beyond their experience. Hoffman may be preternaturally gifted as the son of one of his generation’s finest actors, and Haim has been directed by Anderson in many of her band’s music videos, but to come running out of the gate with this sort of performance is impressive.
I had a smile plastered across my face (nearly) the entire runtime, and in that classic Anderson way the film’s lingered in my head ever since, and my thoughts have continually morphed during that time. I won’t fully spoil it here for those that haven’t seen the movie yet. I’ll stick to aesthetic details more than plot points, but feel free to skip this last paragraph if you want to go in completely blind.
There’s an abrupt shift in style during the movie’s last shot that left me puzzled, and even a bit cold, as I exited the cinema. It was Paul Thomas Anderson, so I knew it wasn’t just a superfluous detail. It was definitely intentional. What that intentionality alludes to is in the eye of the beholder, but personally, I believe it harkens back to the dark undercurrent subtly flowing below the surface of the entire movie. In the end, Alana and Gary are still running. And they probably always will be. But for now, they’re running together, two people with a soul connection even if they aren’t right for each other. And that’s all one can ask for.
USA | 2021 | 133 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • JAPANESE
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Paul Thomas Anderson.
starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper & Benny Safdie.