By Joe Poulos
Acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film “Licorice Pizza” is one of the best movies of 2021.
Set during the gas crisis of 1973, the film tells the story of a young woman, Alana Kane, as she tries to find purpose in San Fernando Valley, California.
Although the film has a simple premise, the meandering plot and surprising comedic sequences offer a sense of realism. Viewers are made to feel like they know Alana and her best friend, the young Gary Valentine.
Valentine is played by Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Valentine is a 15-year old child actor who has ambition and confidence to boot.
Alana, played by musician Alana Haim, is 25. She is unsure of what steps to take next, but her proximity to the film industry draws her in. Gary shows Alana some tricks about acting, and the two begin to spend a lot of time together.
Since both of our leads are first time actors, it is no surprise to see the immense on screen chemistry they share. This new experience of acting was obviously shared by them in real life, and it helps the audience believe in their relationship.
The film follows the two of them as Gary tries to go from one money-making scheme to the next. His exploits are based on the life of Gary Goetzman, the famous producer who was cofounder of Playtone with Tom Hanks.
Our fresh-faced leading man realizes that he is aging out of his cute child actor phase, and he begins to try to make real money. He and Alana run a water bed business, which ultimately closes after the Gas Crisis cuts access to the rubber supply.
Before that can happen though, our two heroes have an encounter with an odd Hollywood producer. They fulfill an order for a water bed for Jon Peters, the famous producer of 1976’s “A Star is Born.” Bradley Cooper plays a hilariously rude version of the man to great comedic effect.
This cameo is short, yet easily one of the best parts of the film. He accosts our heroes, throws a gas can at his butler and then threatens to burn a man alive at the gas station.
Peters goes literally crazy and after Gary and Alana decide to smash his car to show him what’s up, they return to the freight truck they used to bring the bed to his home.
Unfortunately, they find out the vehicle is out of gas. Alana saves the day by putting the truck into neutral, and gliding it backwards down the hills of the neighborhood. As they make it to the ground, Gary turns to her and smiles. “Hardcore Alana!,” he says. This is another point of realism in the film, as Alana Haim learned how to drive a stick-shift U-Haul from the 1970s specifically for this movie.
While this isn’t technically a feel good movie, it does have a warming effect to it. Through the familiar decade of the 1970s, the wistful music of McCartney and Bowie serenades the scenes of shared vulnerability between the lead characters.
The costumes and set designs are very period-specific and very effective at cementing the viewer into this nicely built world. Anderson anchors the viewer in with the realistically tangible tone of the film.
Still, the relationship between the leads keeps us guessing as well. What brings Alana and Gary together is their opposite places in life. Gary is a teenager, with a successful acting career and business. Alana, on the other hand, has no accomplishments of her own.
She and Gary fall in and out of love, as they both search for meaning in Los Angeles. They also try to see what they can get from each other to help with their existential issues.
The film has the power to suspend the viewer in a state of nostalgic grace. This film feels like a summer day. The same summer where you couldn’t wait to get outside and see your friends. Remember the way you would all meet on your bikes, and before you knew where the time had gone, your mother was calling you home?
This coming-of-age comedy drama works because of its connection with reality. Sean Penn delivers a welcome cameo as Jack Holden, an entertaining actor based on William Holden. Between Cooper and Penn, this film absolutely thrives off of these well-executed cameos.
Casting choices add an extra layer of realism as well. For purposes of chemistry and comedic effect, Alana’s sisters in the film are played by her real life sisters, Este and Danielle. Her mother and father are also played by their real Haim counterparts, Donna and Moti, respectively.
Although the plot is meandering, and there are times where Alana and Gary aren’t even in contact, the film still pulls us in with Anderson’s warm depiction of sunny California in the 1970s.
It is primarily a film about a young girl’s journey of self discovery, as she tries to find herself in the plight of her 20s. This is extremely relatable, and the viewer begins to root for her to succeed.
One could easily compare this film to Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to the Los Angeles of 1969, “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.” Both are hugely interactive and detailed worlds that appear to have been pulled right out of documentaries from the time period.
However, “Licorice Pizza” is different. While Tarantino relies on spectacle and established superstars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, Anderson instead chooses young novices. He lands on two basically unknown actors, both of whom showed dedication and respect for the profession.
This ended up being a great decision on his part as both deliver great down-to-earth performances.
There are one or two things that aren’t particularly great about the film. One scene, in particular, shows us a racist character who pretends to speak Japanese with an exaggerated accent.
It caused much controversy, and many have tried to cancel Anderson over this. Since the scene itself isn’t funny, and considering the bad press it gained the movie, one has to wonder why this sequence was included.
What “Licorice Pizza” does really well is make viewers feel a part of the world of the film and the setting. We feel like we are running with Gary and his friends on a hot summer day as we weave in and out of parked cars on the overpass. We make our way to the gas station, can in hand and prepare ourselves for possible combat.
It captures a moment in time very vividly. There has been much Oscar buzz surrounding the film, and it is likely both young lead actors will be nominated.
“Licorice Pizza” is a superbly nostalgic film. It uses its big name cameos to maximum effect, combining forces with the soundtrack of the 1970s to deliver a larger than life reality. The humor, political commentary and historical accuracy cement the viewers in Anderson’s well-built world. It is a world in which you can go out everyday with your friends and ride bikes until the summer sun sets. I would gladly stay in it.