Never underestimate the power of a simple story exquisitely told by a passionate filmmaker. The year is 1973 and the setting is the San Fernando Valley. Gary Valentine is a 15-year-old teen but with the confidence of a man twice that age. Actor Cooper Hoffman is the son of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s got personality to spare. It’s school picture day at his Tarzana high school and he’s smitten by the photographer’s assistant, 25-year-old Alana Kane. Actress Alana Haim is memorable in her feature film debut. In real life, Alana is a musician in the pop/rock band Haim. Her familial group also includes her two older sisters, Este and Danielle who play her siblings in this movie.
Gary and Alana are an odd couple romance. She’s the yin to his yang. I wouldn’t say they exactly hit it off. He flirts and she fends off his persistent verbal advances. He’s a decade her junior after all. I’ll concede their age difference seems inappropriate. However, they look about the same age and she still lives at home so they seem compatible on a maturity level. His persistence pays off. She agrees to meet him for dinner at this bar/restaurant where he’s a regular. Thus begins a fascinating relationship with many ups and downs.
Gary is a hustler that gets by on sheer determination. His mother Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) works for an advertising company that Gary created. He’ll start a water bed company and open a pinball palace during the chronicle. Gary boasts he’s an actor. At first, it sounds like something he simply made up to impress Alana, but we soon discover it’s the truth.
Licorice Pizza is a brilliant movie that flawlessly weaves reality with fiction into a compelling tale. The character is based on Gary Goetzman, a Hollywood producer who was a former child actor. Goetzman’s presence in the comedy Yours, Mine and Ours inspires a most delightful production number. In a personal appearance, Gary performs on stage with a shrewish star named Lucille Dolittle — a thinly disguised portrayal of Lucille Ball. In a year where Being the Ricardos exists, who knew the funniest depiction of the comedienne would come from Christine Ebersole? That’s not the only tie to the real world. Sean Penn portrays a highly fictionalized version of William Holden, Bradley Cooper hams it up as hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters and Benny Safdie is Joel Wachs, an LA politician running for mayor.
This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature and his fifth to be set largely in California’s San Fernando Valley, where he’s lived most of his life. It’s a place the director knows well. The title refers to a bygone chain of record stores in southern California. The Glendale-based business flourished in the 1970s. The words “Licorice Pizza” are never uttered or referenced but its aura informs the narrative. Cherry-picked tunes are catchy selections you haven’t heard a million times. They perfectly convey the laid-back ambiance: “Stumblin’ In” by Chris Norman and Suzi Quatro, “Peace Frog” by The Doors, “Let Me Roll It” by Paul McCartney and Wings, and “Life On Mars?” by David Bowie are just a few. The music truly enhances the mood.
I love a director that has done his homework. Licorice Pizza is an engaging dive into the early 70s aesthetic. This is an auteur working at full capacity and the results are an absolute joy. The finely tuned ensemble piece highlights a series of captivating vignettes. On the surface, it’s a meandering saga with a lackadaisical plot. Yet the journey back in time is perfectly realized. I was amazed at the detail. Honestly, the portrait is so convincing, I question whether Anderson used a time machine to film this picture. In a word, it’s immersive.