Licorice Pizza (2021)

"I can be your friend, but I can’t be your girlfriend. That’s illegal."

Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), is a 15-year-old in the San Fernando Valley in 1973. But he’s not a normal 15-year-old by any stretch. Sure, he goes to high school, and he has a dopey set of friends. But Gary is a child actor of modest to medium success. More than that, he’s naturally charismatic in a huckster sort of way. He’s also independent and confident, his single mother’s busy public relations career giving him a lot of freedom to follow his various pursuits. Physically, he’s not much of a child either: He’s already completed the full cycle of puberty and looks closer to 30 than a teenager. His hair is even thinning a bit. We gather that his body changes happened very quickly: Half the people that encounter him remark that they barely recognize him, and when he appears with some younger child actors on stage, he sticks out like a sore thumb.

Alana Kane (Alana Haim of the terrific pop-rock band HAIM) is 25, but she hasn’t done much with her life since graduating high school, and so she may just as well have graduated last summer. This isn’t helped by the fact that she is the youngest child in a Jewish family. Everyone’s always treating her like the baby. She is flighty and immature because everyone around her expects her to be. And yet she’s still 25, and sometimes her adulthood rears its head. For a few moments at a time, Alana has a clear and mature view of the world. But only for a few moments.

One day, Alana is working as an assistant photographer for school pictures at Gary’s school. She immediately catches Gary’s eye, and he approaches her. He asks her on a date. It’s almost like a carnival game to him: Can he get the cute older girl/young woman to agree to go out with him? At first, she says “no,” then she says “no,” then she says “no” again. She really should be annoyed, and we should hate him, but he is kind of charming, and, maybe he’s just a good faker, but he really seems to have some sort of instant, alchemical affection for her. Eventually Alana stops saying “no” and starts saying “maybe,” which to him is a “yes.”

Thus begins the relationship at the heart of Licorice Pizza. It’s an absolutely terrific opening scene, telling us everything we need to know about the characters and their differing personalities in microcosm form. The way it’s shot, the characters on the move and filled with youthful energy, a blend of weird turns of phrase and naivete in the dialogue, instantly makes you curious where these two are headed.

The rest of the film follows their relationship unfolding over the next six months. It’s an odd sort of connection. They repeatedly deny that they are boyfriend and girlfriend. And yet so much of the plot is one making the other jealous, intentionally or unintentionally, and it’s structured as a romantic comedy typically would be. But there’s more to it than that: This relationship is blurry. One of their first times out together, Alana is serving as Gary’s adult chaperone. Later, she is his business partner and his only confidant. Many of their interactions feel more like that of a bickering brother and sister than anything else, let alone romantic partners.

The movie has come under fire from some moviegoers for the age gap between Gary and Alana. Specifically, plenty of viewers complain how such a romance would be illegal and statutory rape were it to become physically intimate. These critics (rightly) point out that what this movie treats as normal and harmless would be overtly creepy and predatory if the gender roles were reversed, and should be viewed thusly.

I get it, and I don’t entirely disagree. But I think that criticism misses two important points. The first is the obvious one, and that is that it takes place during the 1970s, when “cradle robbing,” as it was thought of in almost jokey parlance, was culturally normalized. Depiction isn’t the same thing as endorsement, and the movie has at least a little bit of heartburn about the age gap, although Anderson renders this heartburn as social embarrassment on the part of Alana rather than an ethical or legal quandary.

I also think it’s important, though, that the relationship is not strictly romantic. It’s weird. There’s something sweet and touching about the bond between the pair that goes beyond attraction. They’re two lonely people filling voids in the other’s life. Alana is a woman, and she’s beautiful, but she also has the right amount of both skepticism and admiration for Gary’s specific variety of charm and ambition. She brings out the best in him, keeping him from getting too carried away, but supporting his whims. Practically speaking, since she is an adult, she can do stuff like sign contracts and rent trucks, which proves very handy to the industrious teenaged Gary, always sniffing for the next scheme. It’s part of the reason he always keeps her nearby.

Meanwhile, to Alana, Gary offers optimism and enthusiasm, and he genuinely seems to find her interesting and remarkable in a way that’s not just flattery. He’s a conduit to the spontaneous side of life.

One of my favorite moments of the film is shortly after Gary and Alana meet, Gary tells his friend that he’s just met the woman he plans to marry someday. The sentiment that he wants to spend his whole life with Alana is echoed near the end of the film — this time where she can hear it. For all that Gary is a schemer and a pleaser, his love for Alana on whatever dimensions you want to quantify it — romantic, familial, friendly — is sincere.

We get to watch this relationship blossom in the framework of a PT Anderson hang-out comedy that occasionally verges into a sketch comedy. This is a shaggy and episodic story without much overarching narrative tissue, except that each moment challenges Alana and Gary to think a little bit more about what the other means to them.

The bulkiest segment of the film, most of the middle act, involves Gary and Alana trying to set up a waterbed business. I love this. The waterbed is a delightful image. It’s big and blocky and ugly and is the epitome of 70s silliness. And since it’s a bed, it basically forces some sexual tension between Gary and Alana, which they are intent to steer clear of most of the time.

Later in the film, Gary has decided to start his own pinball arcade, with all the striking sounds and images that entails. Meanwhile, Alana starts working for the campaign of mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). She develops a crush on Wachs, although the movie makes clear from the moment we see him that he is what the 1970s media would have called a “certified bachelor,” leading to a predictable confrontation near the end of the film. I like this contrast of “pinball” versus “politics” between Gary and Alana. It’s a nice metaphor for the lingering youth of Gary and the emerging adulthood of Alana. The absolutely lovely final scene shows both of them pulling away from these differences and back towards each other and their happy, fuzzy, neither-kid-nor-adult medium.

The story is very loosely based on the life of Gary Goetzman, a businessman and former child actor, one of PT Anderson’s good friends. Goetzman is of no inherent interest to me, and the movie retreads on some familiar Anderson themes, but it makes good, wacky fodder for the hangout hijinks.

Anderson and Haim both bring in a number of their loved ones and colleagues to make appearances in the film. For example, Alana Kane‘s family is played by the actual Haim family. Anderson’s celebrity buddies make a bunch of appearances, which might be distracting due to their high profile (e.g. Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn) if not for the fact that each cameo is funnier and more bizarre than the last. One of these, a business owner played by John Michael Higgins, received some negative press for the way he uses a caricatured Asian accent when speaking to his Japanese wife. It’s the kind of shtick you don’t often see in movies anymore, with good reason, but it doesn’t really bother me because it’s the movie makes clear that it thinks this man is an idiot. (And it helps that Higgins is never not funny.)

As with any Anderson joint, the acting is a smorgasbord of memorable, idiosyncratic turns. That the leads are so good is both a necessity for the film thriving, and something of a miracle — both are first-timers. The movie rides entirely on their screen presence and chemistry. Hoffman, son of the great Philip Seymour (one of Anderson’s favorites), adopts Gary’s vibe so perfectly, I actually fear it may just be a refraction of his own personality and not much of an acting job. It will be hard to know until the upcoming film The Trashers directed by my pet favorite rising director Cooper Raiff (of Shithouse and Cha Cha Real Smooth), before we really have a sense of what Hoffman’s talent is.

But with Haim there is absolutely no question. She is funny and talented and nuanced as an actor, effortlessly transforming Alana from sweet to sad to stupid all in a few gestures or lines — most notably the terrific opening. It’s a great performance where you’re always rooting for her even as she self-destructs, and I can’t wait to see where her career heads next.

Anderson, for the second consecutive film, serves as his own cinematographer, this time sharing credit with the equally novice Michael Bauman. I’m not sure that I would call the film attractive, but I also think that that’s by design. The film really looks like the 1970s, from the abundance of production details like cars and clothes and hairstyles and wallpaper, but from the slightly dingy, almost water-stained, look of the colors in the film. I do still wonder what a great cinematographer could’ve done with the material, but Anderson and his team have really found a look that suits the film.

The music too, is excellent, featuring a dozen or so needle drops that are rarely too obvious or on-the-nose, but always familiar and just right for setting the tone: Nina Simone, The Doors, Donovan, a bunch of others. Of course, Dazed and Confused spoiled me on 70s teen hang out film soundtracks, and I kept wanting even more music to set the tone, but that’s mostly a me problem and not an issue with the film.

There’s also the fact that Anderson and the film deeply love their settings, drab though they may be. It’s not the glitziest part of LA, but it’s still a beige hotbed of dreams and memories. You really feel like you’ve hopped in the screen; you can almost smell it.

Licorice Pizza is ultimately a film it’s hard to get too worked up about, but it’s deeply charming and immersive with a really terrific pair of lead characters. Their complicated and uneasy relationship gives plenty for the film to pick apart beyond its hangout vibes. I suspect it will be a re-watchable film, because hang out comedies that focus more on great individual scenes than larger stories are the exact type of movies I always find myself itching to turn on, but I guess we’ll figure that out over the next couple of years.

It’s my belief that every great filmmaker should be required at some point to make their version of a teen hang-out film. Then we could line them up all side-by-side and have one for every mood and use them as a lens into what makes that filmmaker tick. Licorice Pizza is Anderson’s entry, and it definitely does him justice.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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