It may not be surprising to some to hear that Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Licorice Pizza, opens with a hell of a pick-up scene. They’re something of a specialty for the filmmaker. Anderson loves a hard-sell hustler and a go-for-broke dreamer, and what delicious words he gives them as they chase their various desires. Think of the fashion designer flirting with a waitress in Phantom Thread but also the oil baron greasing his way into a town’s good graces in There Will Be Blood. Think of the cult leader reaching out to a lost soul in The Master, dangling the possibility of salvation with an unmistakable hint of seduction. That aforementioned leader was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, which imparts a certain fascination to the opening scene of Licorice Pizza. The pick-up artist here — played by Cooper Hoffman, the late actor’s son — is a fifteen-year-old go-getter with the showbiz-ready name of Gary Valentine. It’s picture day at a Tarzana high school in the mid-1970s, and Gary finds himself smitten with a photographer’s assistant named Alana Kane (Alana Haim). Unfazed by her age (she’s twenty-five) or her disdain, he wears her down with nonstop chatter about his acting career, the PR company he runs with his mom and his insistence on taking Alana out to dinner. She doesn’t say yes, but as she turns away a certain look of interest runs across her face.
And by that point she’s earned your interest as well. Gary Valentine may be persistent, but Alana — both the actor and the character interchangeably — lay their charm a little more subtly. With a natural warmth and wit that can quickly flare into resentment, she’s the star of this boisterous, bighearted movie and its arguable point of existence; as the movie can often feel like a love letter to the newcomer actress. But Licorice Pizza is also a lot more than that: a coming-of-age comedy and a shaggy-dog epic, a rise-and-fall portrait of a waterbed empire, a string of Hollywood tall tales, a peek inside the chambers of political power and a display of raucous men behaving badly. And Anderson draws inspiration from all directions: Much of the plot is drawn from anecdotes told by his friend Gary Goetzman, an actor, prolific movie producer and loose stand-in for Gary Valentine. Some of it was inspired by classics like American Graffiti, with its hang-out vision of California youth, or plucked from real-life events, like the 1970s gas shortages that caused car lines to stretch on for blocks.
But much of Licorice Pizza also seems to have been devised by Anderson and his actors, who include not only Alana Haim but also the other members of her own family (including her fellow Haim bandmate sisters, Danielle and Este). With its funny, sometimes farcical developments and infectious little-help-from-my-friends vibe, this is easily (if deceptively) the most shaggy and laid-back film Anderson’s ever made in his San Fernando Valley backyard. The steady glide of the camera sets a lazy, meandering rhythm, but very few moments feel wasted. While the specters of Robert Altman and Hal Ashby have hovered over Anderson’s work before, Licorice Pizza is neither as virtuosic an ensemble piece as Magnolia nor an oddball romance as Punch-Drunk Love. And while it may unfold on similar grounds as the ’70s porn empire from Boogie Nights, it pulls back the curtain on a far tamer, not necessarily kinder corner of the entertainment industry. Curiously enough, the Anderson film it may most resemble, more in theme than in feel, is Phantom Thread, another story of a woman negotiating her emotional and professional place within the life of an easily distracted male partner. (The two movies share some of Anderson’s expert regular collaborators, including composer Jonny Greenwood and costume designer Mark Bridges.)
For Alana and Gary, that negotiation takes many forms. It begins with Alana chaperoning Gary on a trip to New York for a live cast reunion for his movie “Under One Roof” (a riff on one of Goetzman’s early screen credits, the 1968 Lucille Ball comedy Yours, Mine and Ours), the first and last film of his short-lived acting career. Back in L.A., a starstruck Alana briefly dates another actor (Skyler Gisondo), only to find herself pulled back into Gary’s orbit when he launches his new waterbed business. Over the rest of the film these two will remain in furious motion, forever colliding and separating, as if they were trapped in one of the pinball machines that will become Gary’s next project. (No wonder they’re almost always running toward each other when they reunite.) One of the animating tensions of Licorice Pizza is that there’s so much swirling around Alana and Gary — so much color and chaos, so much great music and flowery wallpaper — that it can almost distract from how much is also happening between them. Alana is impressed by Gary’s entrepreneurial smarts, but also frustrated by his immaturity and self-absorption — and by her own inability to tear herself away. Gary, for his part, can’t help but see her through a fifteen-year-old boy’s haze of jealousy and insecurity. There’s a touch of Peter Pan and Wendy to their dynamic (Gary’s younger brother and teenage friends make a fine gaggle of lost boys), and their relationship stays platonic even as they peddle a line of products that serve, in their own way, to commodify desire.
But then again, everyone’s selling something in Licorice Pizza: publicity, sushi, menswear, political candidates. (The latter being Benny Safdie as the young Joel Wachs, here launching the first of his three runs for mayor of Los Angeles.) You may forget some characters’ names, but the names of real-life businesses will stick in your head like some commercial jingle: Tiny Toes, Fat Bernie’s and Tail o’ the Cock, the latter being the steak-and-margarita joint that’s one of the movie’s key hangouts. It’s also where Alana first says “You’re sweet, Gary,” a line Haim delivers with a lovely little tremble, as if a mask were falling away. It’s also where Alana will ill-advisedly have a drink with an actor affectionately modeled on William Holden (a richly nuanced, gravel-voiced Sean Penn). Funnily enough, one of the places we don’t actually visit is a Licorice Pizza, a chain of record stores that proliferated across Southern California in the ’70s. Some of its merchandise pop up on the movie’s stacked soundtrack — which features Nina Simone, Sonny & Cher, Paul McCartney, Gordon Lightfoot and many others — but the title itself is pointedly never mentioned. Its very absence evokes a sense of loss, a fondness for bygone days of vinyl sifting and cassette shuffling — and, this of course being Anderson, of going to the movies, where countless stories, real, fictional or somewhere in between, are waiting to be told.
Some of those stories are told here, through Anderson’s associative, formless structure. And few of them more arresting than the one starring a hilarious, unpredictable Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters, the prolific producer and serial womanizer whose early career as a hairdresser was one of the inspirations for Hal Ashby’s 1975 comedy, Shampoo. Peters is rushing out to a date with Barbra Streisand when Gary and his crew show up late with a waterbed delivery, which is bad news for them but good news for us: Cooper, his chest hair peeking out of a billowy white cotton shirt, looks like a Jesus of sleaze, and he plays Peters with a cocktail of rage and testosterone that steers Licorice Pizza toward a riotous high point. There’s a lot of affection in these alt-Hollywood vignettes. There’s also a coil of menace, an awareness of how pleasure and danger commingle in an industry where Gary and Alana are asymmetrically positioned: He may be savvier, but she turns more heads. After a meeting with the famous child-talent agent Mary Grady (Harriet Sansom Harris), who notes Alana’s “very Jewish nose” and urges her to consider doing nudity, it doesn’t take long for their Hollywood dreams to curdle. Their youthful disillusionment seems to reflect Anderson’s own industry ambivalence, and the long, loving closeups he lavishes on Hoffman and Haim, their blemished faces scrubbed of makeup and devoid of glamour, feel like both a pointed corrective to the status quo and a pure expression of love.
To that end, Anderson is too honest to grant us a doubt-free happily ever after; as his stories have consistently shown, he’s keenly aware about the impermanence of romance. And he does that through slowly shifting the focus away from Gary’s puppy-love attraction, to gradually give more and more of the spotlight to Alana. And what we come to see is that, on an emotional level, Alana is something of a kid, too — someone reaching for an idea of adult life that remains as out of reach for her as it does for her literally adolescent admirer. It’s one of the most honest depictions of stunted adulthood in years. And while Anderson throws plenty of skepticism on the central pair, he’s still always been a storyteller who’s skepticism has never stood in the way of his passion, as someone who doesn’t just look at the past and see a nostalgia trip. With Licorice Pizza he has sifted through the past and made something that feels more concrete and tangibly real than just about any American movie this year. A California daydream of woozy tall tales and half-forgotten memories, Licorice Pizza is a film that renders the beautifully wandering, hazy warmth of recollection into something achingly alive.
Licorice Pizza is playing in Theaters nationwide