What a title! Paul Thomas Anderson takes shades of almost every single one of his prior films and combines them to create his best yet: “Licorice Pizza.” It’s very loose on plot development and is a simplistic, feel-good hangout movie. The characters are incredibly relatable towards the age range they’re in. In contrast to the plot, the screenplay is tight with fantastically obscure dialogue, and there are so many authentically humorous one-liners that never fail to miss on the laughs. Nobody tries to make movies like this anymore.
Of all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, this feels the most like “Boogie Nights,” both of the films are exploratory studies into the lives of rising stars – only that film was obviously about adult film stars, whereas this is about child stars becoming entrepreneurs. Following the teenager, Gary Valentine, and his mid-twenty-year-old “babysitter” Alana Kane becoming waterbed sales associates is just as ridiculously fun as the film’s title itself. The immersive passion Anderson puts into his latest film transports you into this atmospheric time period, even with something as little as recognizing a quickly faded trend of that time, as the waterbed.
I find it unbelievable that this is the first role for not one, but both of the leads in the film and Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman each have absolutely magnetic chemistry. Hoffman’s casting does not at all feel forced because his late father, Philip Seymour Hoffman, was a Paul Thomas Anderson regular. He naturally fits with this period and in this role. The journey of Gary Valentine and Alana Kane’s relationship starts off with Gary stumbling upon Alana as he’s going to take his school picture. The further time they spend together, there becomes more of a realization by Alana as to why she’s spending so much of her free time with Gary and his fifteen-year-old friends. By the end, they are full-on “partners in crime.” The age gap between the two makes a lot of sense in terms of the “growing up” themes the film explores, but it also doesn’t go overtly juvenile with the stimulated teenager falling in love with the woman of his dreams. They never act upon these desires. I enjoyed the “friend zone” friendship development and how Haim’s fierce attitude changed towards Gary as the movie progressed.
The amount of randomized events that occur in this film has something for everyone. There are celebrity cameos left and right – some offering thrills and tension, others intense amounts of chuckling. One of the more memorable sequences in the film, featuring Tom Waits as fictional film director Rex Blau and Sean Penn as fictional actor Jack Holden, follows Alana in a restaurant talking with Jack with Gary watching from afar. Jack then takes Alana outside on his motorcycle while a crowd watches him jump a ramp over a wave of fire. This scene is so ridiculously random and doesn’t quite fit with any narrative displayed, but like many other scenes, it’s the script wanting to show off bizarre shenanigans in the 1970’s San Fernando Valley. Bradley Cooper plays real-life film producer Jon Peters, who was formerly partnered to Barbara Streisand, and he is absolutely bonkers in his small role. He is a customer purchasing a waterbed from Gary and they are tasked to install it when he isn’t home. They screw it up, leaking water all over the floor, and right as they are about to leave they spot him walking back home on foot. Without giving them time to stop, he hops in the semi-truck and forces them to drive them to get gas. Once they arrive at the gas station he begins to yell at customers out of the blue and they leave him stranded, and he continues to break a lot of stuff. Again, none of this is absolutely necessary, but it’s pure enjoyment. Maya Rudolph and Benny Safdie each have a short scene (separately), John C. Reilly briefly appears dressed as Herman Munster, and John Michael Higgins has two of the funniest parts in the film with such pretentious and simple humor that I couldn’t help but suffice it. With all that, none of it was disengaging when either Hoffman or Haim wasn’t at the central focus of the frame.
Talking of awards, “Licorice Pizza” isn’t a contender in many places. But the ones where it does make it in, I see it being a major player. I have a hard time seeing two plotless films winning Best Picture consecutively, after “Nomadland” last year. Now that the buzz is dying down on “Belfast,” “Don’t Look Up” and “West Side Story” are the only others I see taking home the biggest award in pop culture. After directing nine films over the course of twenty-five years, Paul Thomas Anderson is overdue an Oscar – I said the same thing about Kenneth Branagh for “Belfast” as well. The greater possibility is that Branagh takes home the award for Best Director, while Anderson wins for Best Original Screenplay, the film’s greatest strength. Alana Haim is my hope-diction for Best Actress, even though she doesn’t have a chance at winning. Finally, Bradley Cooper was my frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor for nearly the entire year until I heard his role is basically an extended cameo. Now that I’ve seen his role, had he acted crazier for at most ten more minutes, he would’ve got in. In his eight-or-so minutes of screen time, he doesn’t do enough to warrant a nomination in a category full of performances without a single believable winner.
After Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” David Fincher’s “Mank,” and now this, I’m starting to like the idea of big-name directors dropping everything just to make a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood in the mid-twentieth century. “Licorice Pizza” has every bit of quality you’d expect in a coming of age period piece, but is layered with so much more. The witty dialogue shines in the best screenplay of the year. The debuting performances by the two leads suck you in and create two new movie stars. I could not take my eyes off the screen and it had me smiling from start to finish. “Licorice Pizza” is the astounding slice of nostalgia I never knew I needed.
Final Grade: A+