Licorice Pizza (2021)

Fifteen-year old child actor and entrepreneur Gary Valentine has a love at first sight relationship with 25 year old Alana, a rootless school photographer assistant. She resists, but becomes friends with him because of his persistence and charm. Also, because she’s still searching for a grown-up life.

Licorice Pizza is a hangout movie. There isn’t much of a plot, just various episodes, usually to showcase the bigger stars in the movie. Licorice Pizza’s also a coming-of-age story where choices, both intentional or those rarely imposed from outside, begin to define a life. And like life, the narrative almost seems random from the outside. Life is a combination of choice, reaction and chance. Those with the most control of their life, as Gary thinks he has, usually seem happier. Alana has a harder time finding a place in life, bouncing from one job to another in an effort to find meaning.

This isn’t my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson movie. But it’s far from the worst. I’m still a sucker for the melodrama Magnolia. While Licorice Pizza still has the sweeping story-telling style of his other movies, fewer characters than his other movies makes this movie feel low-key and a bit of a mismatch, setting an epic soundtrack to lower stakes.

Set mostly in 1973, Licorice Pizza continues the recent trend of mythologizing growing up wild in the seventies. Gary’s mother is mostly in the background and the kids basically do what they want unsupervised. Gary starts a few new businesses with no obstruction from those who should know better. But, in Gary’s defense, he is naturally good at what he tries through effort and showmanship and if the movie has a message, it’s say yes, then figure out what to do.

The movie succeeds or fails on the chemistry between the newish leads. And they knock it out of the park. Almost immediately, you want to know more about Gary and Alana, their lives and their relationships. Newcomers Alana Haim (of the band Haim) and Cooper Hoffman (Phillip Seymore Hoffman’s son) capture the screen and should have great careers ahead. They both do an excellent job navigating the changing levels of their relationship. Not a lot of movies tackle the topic of “What do I want to be when I grow up” because it creates vague, indecisive characters and movies like decisive, bold protagonists to drive the plot. And even harder is the push/pull of youthful arrogance and the unknown of an unset life. Alana Haim certainly does both well. As Hoffman is a natural showman disguising his shortcomings through bluster.

Admittedly, as a fifteen-year-old, I had a lot of the unblinkered arrogance and optimism of Gary’s character, but age has worn that down. Licorice Pizza does an incisive job of recreating those coming-of-age emotions.

The cinematography, simultaneously as the movie goes on, transitions from the cracked, mirrored shots symbolizing the alienation of adulthood to the more straight-ahead close-ups of the concreteness of a young couple falling in love.

Two small complaints. The movie shoehorns in some more famous people to do almost separate, stand-alone stories that only tangentially affects Alana and Gary’s story. There’s really no reason for Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper and Tom Waits to be in the movie. They’re great, of course, but unnecessary. Bradley Cooper stands out as the angry real-life producer Jon Peters. Second, the inevitable ending still seems rushed. Usually, I’m a fan of a quick ending as most movies overstay their welcome. However, there were still a few questions left unanswered. Honestly, maybe the movie did answer them and I am just dumb.

I am just dumb is always an answer.