Licorice Pizza marks writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 9th feature film, and it seems to be his most personal film to date, as it takes place in his hometown of San Fernando Valley during 1973. It’s difficult to go into a Paul Thomas Anderson film and not have high expectations. I can’t even guess the number of times I’ve watched Boogie Nights, and Magnolia is one that I adore just as much. These two films just impacted me from the first time I experienced them in the cinema and really fostered my appreciation for film and storytelling with large ensembles. Since then I’ve been waiting somewhat patiently for PTA to do another film like those two, but instead he’s grown as a filmmaker and genuinely become an auteur. While I can look at his films The Master, There Will Be Blood, and Phantom Thread, they are great cinematic achievements that show he can do award worthy films and that he’s definitely one of the best working directors out there, BUT I’d be hard pressed to say they have the re-watchability of his earlier films. It just seems he’s been chasing after that elusive Best Director award rather than simply having fun directing movies. Then Licorice Pizza comes along, and it is a sweet breath of fresh air, a film filled with the cinematic flair and great characters, along with a great soundtrack that got me to become a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work.
The overall plot of the film is simple. Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is a precocious 15-year-old who is an actor and has started up a few businesses of his own. When he meets Alana (Alana Haim) on picture day at school, he is instantly smitten with the 25-year-old who works for the photography company. He’s persistent about getting Alana to go out on a date with him, and reluctantly she agrees in a way to call his bluff. She sets the ground rules that they are meeting, but only as friends. As the film progresses and the relationship gets more complicated, she has to keep reminding herself that they are only just friends … or are they? This isn’t a teenage sex comedy, but it is fun-spirited romance that is charming and innocent. Sure, this has some vibes that remind me of Rushmore (1999) with the precocious teen trying to win over an older woman’s affections. The difference I see is that in Rushmore, the main character was more fueled by jealousy, whereas Gary’s affections and actions are genuine.
The film takes place over the summer in 1973 and is very much a coming-of-age story, not just for Gary, but for Alana as well. In many ways Gary is practically an adult. He has a job and is mostly self-sufficient and helps take care of his little brother while his mom spends a majority of her time out of state or at the office. Gary knows what he wants in his life, to be successful whether that means being a television star or running a successful water bed business. Basically whatever he sets his mind to, he’s going to accomplish it. On the flip side there is Alana, who when we meet her she is directionless and lacks self-esteem, and it’s only when she spends time with Gary that she’s able to build on her confidence and starts getting serious about where she wants to go with her life.
This is where I want to point out to those who feel the relationship was gross or problematic, well, look at the rest of the characters in the film. Alana never embraces her relationship with Gary as a sexual one. She is always the first to remind Gary that they are friends. Every guy who crosses her path sees her as nothing more than a sexual object, or they find some way to use her without ever considering who she is as a person. This is something that hits the hardest when Jack Holden (Sean Penn) is attempting to do a motorcycle stunt and he speeds off, not noticing Alana has fallen off the bike, and we see Gary running to her to see if she’s OK. It’s not a moment that becomes a rousing romantic beat where they fall into each other’s arms, but it’s his actions that show us his genuine feelings.
A lot of the characters are based on real people. Jack Holden is based on William Holden, and Rex Blau (Tom Waits) seems to be based on Sam Peckinpah with the heavy drinking and cavalier attitude. Then there is Bradley Cooper playing real life producer Jon Peters, whom sadly is not in as much of the film as the trailers would suggest, but when he’s on screen, it’s great. Then there is Gary, who is based on Gary Goetzman, who was a former child actor who went on to be the co-founder of the Playtone production company alongside Tom Hanks. All these characters work so well in this film and just lend the authenticity that makes the film work. By the way, I appreciated the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by John C. Reilly as Herman Munster.
It’s the performances by Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim that really stand out. Cooper Hoffman’s father is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s go-to actors. Cooper has his father’s look, but a charisma all his own. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing more from Hoffman in the upcoming years, because he definitely has potential. As for Alana, she’s mostly had a career in the music industry and first worked with Anderson when he shot some music videos with her. She gets to show off a lot of range in this film. What’s equally impressive is that she did her own stunt driving in the sequence where the truck is rolling down the San Fernando Hills when it runs out of gas. But one of the great performances in the film with Hoffman and Haim is one where they don’t even speak. The two are on the phone simply waiting for the other to speak, and what they pull off without words, only their expressions, is more impactful than most scenes we’ve seen in the past year.
Then there is the amazing soundtrack that plays along with the beautiful cinematography of both Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Baume. Yeah, they get a bit carried away with the shots of Hoffman or Haim running with a song from the 70s playing over, but these shots still look great. One of my favorite shots is a golden hour shot where Alana is looking at Gary and his friends in silhouette. It’s a profound moment in the film, and I won’t spoil it, but it’s a beautiful shot.
As an odd side note: in the film we see Gary help start up a waterbed business; this has me wondering if PTA is in any way connecting to his film Punch Drunk Love where he has a character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman who runs a furniture store. It’s just a random connection, just like With There Will Be Blood being about an oil tycoon and the gas shortage playing a big factor in Licorice Pizza. I’m not saying these films are interconnected, but simply something I’ve noticed.
While there is so much that is great about the film, I do have some complaints. My biggest is its abruptness. The film literally jump-starts with Gary pursuing Alana. We don’t get to know these characters; we’re just thrust into a sequence of Gary asking Alana out and trying to convince her. The film moves pretty fast at the start, and it’s around the 15-minute mark where it finally settles down. The same can be said about the end. While I won’t go into spoilers, the film seems to suggest that something is going to happen with one of the sub-characters, something that felt like an homage to Taxi Driver, but we never find out what happens. It doesn’t impact the main story, so why even bother to give us this storyline in the first place? Then there is the whole issue with Gary’s mom just never being around, how Gary accomplishes so much and travels across country without a parent, well, at least more attention to this would have been appreciated. But the one sequence that just really felt out of place is when Gary gets arrested. We know he’s innocent, but when it comes to random moments in a film, this one is definitely out of left field and simply isn’t discussed later in the film, which seems a bit odd.
While this film dabbles in the politics of the early 70s as well as a glimpse into the entertainment industry, it’s at its heart a romance of a time long past and between two people from another era. When I look back on the Best Picture nominees of last year, yeah, this would be my pick for Best Picture, but to be fair, the past two years have been a bit lackluster. Here’s hoping Paul Thomas Anderson continues in this direction and keeps things in The Valley.
Licorice Pizza is presented in the aspect ratio 2.39:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 35 mbps. Licorice Pizza was shot on 35mm film with a variety of older lenses to capture the unique look of the film. It’s why the low light and dark scenes have so much detail and why it seems color just comes alive in such a beautiful warm way. The detail is on point even with the acne on Gary’s face to the textures in the restraints and other sets in the film. This is an example of why I feel film will always be better than digital. Every scene just simply feels more vibrant and alive, whereas digital still feels colder by comparison. This is one where I feel the only way you’ll get a sharper and more vibrant image is in 4K, but we’ll have to wait and see.
The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track is crisp and clear in this dialog-heavy film. The audio design is nicely handled between the dialog and the fun soundtrack that works as almost another character in a film. For the few action scenes, one involving a motorcycle jump and the other with a moving truck, we definitely get more use out of the surround design, but this isn’t the kind of film you want to show off your sound system with.
Camera Tests: (4:14) A mix of what looks like cut scenes and rehearsal shots for the film.
Behind The Scenes: (10:37) A collection of photos and footage from the production of the film.
Fat Bernie’s Commercial: (58 sec) A commercial for Fat Bernie’s waterbeds
The Handman Scene: (2:19) A brief scene cut out with Alana asking Gary a curious question with humorous results.
Comes with a collectable poster inside
While this isn’t my favorite film from Paul Thomas Anderson, this is one that I had fun with, and I know I’ll revisit several times down the road. This isn’t art house PTA; this is definitely personal and fun that reminds me of Almost Famous in a lot of ways. I hope we get to see more films like this from Anderson. As much as I can appreciate the art house beauty of Phantom Thread and the brilliance of There Will Be Blood, Licorice Pizza is the fun time we need every once in a while.