Licorice Pizza ★★1/2
Availability: In theaters now; streaming date not yet set; see JustWatch here for updates.
Once Upon a Time in Encino
Once again, as in “There Will Be Blood” (2007) and “Boogie Nights” (1997), director Paul Thomas Anderson pushes the envelope with “Licorice Pizza.” But it’s not the envelope he relishes, the one that will contain the name of the Academy’s Best Picture, despite the considerable attention the film has received in Oscar circles. Instead, Anderson pushes the envelope of the rom-com genre, offering up a version of the “odd couple” that makes Felix and Oscar seem harmonious.
Anderson pushes the envelope of
the rom-com genre, offering up
a version of the “odd couple”
(Alana Haim as Alana and
Cooper Hoffman as Gary, right)
that makes Felix and Oscar
Most rom-coms have a simple plot and ask a single question—will the guy and the girl, despite their differences, get together?—invariably answered in the affirmative. You’ll have to hold your breath for 2 hours and 13 minutes to find out if the mismatched “Licorice Pizza” duo will discover mutual bliss.
Gary (Cooper Hoffman, the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an overweight, round-faced, somewhat schleppy, self-confident, driven 15-year-old, with a past as a child actor and a future that’s open to any venture that strikes him. Alana (Alana Haim, of the rock band Haim, in her debut acting role), is 25, rail-thin, Modigliani-faced, and unmotivated, lacking not only confidence (except in her body) but any sense of identity, with a lowly job as assistant to a photographer of school children and, as the film makes explicit, with what is more than once described as a “Jewish nose.” About all they share, besides a plot designed to make them a couple, are that they live at home and have imperfect complexions. Hence the title, an obvious reference to two things not usually consumed at the same time.
Cooper Hoffman as Gary Valentine, above, in his immediately hot pinball parlor.
In many rom-coms (“Pretty Woman,” 1990), both the protagonists find the other inadequate, and both must find a path to a relationship. Not here. For Gary it’s love at first sight (his last name is Valentine), and it’s only Alana who must commit. To keep us interested in Gary, Anderson offers up what might be described as a series of comedy sketches, most of them illustrating Gary’s entrepreneurial side—the opening of, first, a waterbed business (the film is set in 1973 in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles), and then a pinball parlor; a teen fair; a couple of wildly stereotypical takes on gay men; an awkward Jewish Shabbat family dinner (with the real Haim family); and two scenes featuring a white man mimicking the Japanese accent of each of his two wives—funny, except maybe if you’re Japanese. Gary is the 1970s equivalent of today’s social media influencer, a non-stop presence whose one constant is his interest in Alana.
Anderson revels in his fondness
for “Hollywood” and Hollywood
stars. Bradley Cooper, left,
as a sex-addicted, Elvis-like "star."
Although Alana learns to appreciate Gary’s business acumen, she comes into her own only in the film’s second half, in which Anderson revels in his fondness for “Hollywood” and Hollywood stars. The cast list goes on forever, full of cameos of current stars and references to old ones—from Lucille Ball to Fred Gwynne—as well as a host of minor characters (family members, school buddies, hangers-on), about whom we care not one whit. As in all good rom-coms, there are no consequences to any of the threats posed by people or vehicles (of which there are many: bicycles, trucks, motorcycles). Anderson adds more than a few scenes of improbable running, even though the last way one can get from Point A to Point B in Southern California is on foot.
Gary and Alana in one of their many running scenes.
The Hollywood scenes have an overall place in the script: Alana must come to appreciate Gary’s authenticity, his sense of purpose and his comfort in his way of being in the world, and she must show something of her own inner strength. But the lessons are delivered with a heavy hand.
Enter the star-studded cast, mostly just having fun with their outsized roles: Bradley Cooper, overacting to a fault, as an Elvis-like, womanizing ego of a man (“I’m addicted to tail”), blustering and threatening—and putting the make on Alana; Tom Waits (more overacting) as a shouting restaurateur/master of ceremonies lighting fires on a golf course; and Sean Penn (yes, more overacting), as a motorcycle riding actor and drunk daredevil, whose smooth talk temporarily mesmerizes Alana (drunk herself, she asks him if he’s being truthful or just “acting”), suggesting that she hasn’t yet made the transition to a “real” man (or real teenager), Gary. Other recent films—“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019) and “La La Land” (2016)—fetishized Hollywood, but with more subtlety and purpose than Anderson musters here.
Even so, the Hollywood segment contains one of the best scenes in the film, featuring Alana, driving a truck, backwards, down a long, steep, narrow, curvy, dark road in the Santa Monica mountains that rim LA. It’s both funny and—if you’ve ever driven a vehicle backwards at high speed—frightening. It’s a coming out moment for Alana, a revelation that she can be gritty and determined and rise to the occasion, that she has a tough side. She can’t ride a horse or speak Portuguese, as she claims, but she can drive a truck in reverse. And so, she’s a match for Gary.
Except she’s not. She’s 10 years older, and it matters only a little that Gary turns 16 late in the film (an attempt to avoid the problematic image of statutory rape). He’s affable, and she’s got a great smile, but otherwise they’re just too different to imagine as a couple. The age disparity (and Gary’s youth) has another effect , too: most of the film is scrubbed of erotic content. There’s no sexual contact between the two, and even the closing kiss is filmed from mid-distance, and in the shadows, as if Anderson knew his audience would not want to see more.
Aided by excellent performances from two ingenues, the film is moderately entertaining. In the end, you’ve still got “Licorice” and “Pizza.” It’ll be a while before you see that combination at Papa John’s.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim, John C. Reilly, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Haim family members
Runtime: 133 minutes
Other Awards: 50 wins, including American Film Institute’s Movie of the Year, and 159 nominations to date—many for Haim and Bradley Cooper
Country: Canada, United States