Since Paul Thomas Anderson’s big screen debut in 1996, the American filmmaker has made a series of rewarding movies as identifiable by his gift for dazzling cinematics as they are by bravura performances and exhilarating ensembles. The director has noted that there is nothing quite as exciting as watching a movie star at work, but unknown actors bring an altogether different kind of energy to the mix. In Anderson’s ninth feature film, Licorice Pizza, he directs newcomers Alana Haim (of the sister pop/rock trio Haim) and Cooper Hoffman (son of longtime collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman) in a mashup that merges San Fernando Valley fact and Hollywood fiction.
The early 1970s time period and location draw favorable comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which takes place four years prior to the events of Licorice Pizza. Both movies warp and bend nostalgia-infused fantasy with fancifully augmented depictions of celebrities whose lives intersect with the protagonists. Both movies rejoice in the perfectly placed needle-drops of carefully curated songs emanating from car speakers and transistor radios. Both Licorice Pizza and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood nail the anything-is-possible look and feel of Southern California dreaming.
Hoffman’s Gary Valentine, whose exploits are based in part on the tales of producer Gary Goetzman, is as precocious and entrepreneurial as fellow 15-year-old Max Fischer in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (he also brings to mind Tom “The Great Brain” Fitzgerald). Despite the stylistic differences between the imagined worlds of the two Andersons, Valentine and Fischer develop serious crushes on older women, cook up all manner of fake-it-til-you-make-it schemes, see the world not necessarily as it is but how they want it to be, and navigate the liminal state between childhood and adulthood with the support of single parents.
The big difference, however, is that Licorice Pizza belongs as much — or more — to Haim’s Alana Kane, the rudderless and restless young woman who captivates Gary when they meet on yearbook picture day at his high school (she’s working as a photographer’s assistant). Anderson recognizes the age-inappropriate obstacle of the potential romance. Much of Alana’s push-pull attraction/repulsion toward Gary revolves around her recognition of their decade gap. But no matter how she tries to leave the teenager’s orbit — in one of the film’s many side trips, she volunteers for real life L.A. city council member Joel Wachs’s campaign — she realizes that she has found a kindred spirit.
Their friendship courses through a warm-hearted array of offbeat anecdotes that ultimately strengthen their takes-one-to-know-one bond. In one terrific sequence, they deliver and set up a waterbed for hairdresser turned movie mogul (and Barbra Streisand beau) Jon Peters, played by Bradley Cooper in a livewire, scene-stealing turn. In another, Sean Penn materializes as a William Holden surrogate who, not unlike Peters, tests Alana’s receptiveness to his predatory creep game and not-so-veiled come-ons. Penn, gunning a motorcycle near hangout Tail o’ the Cock, lets rip the speed and motion that Gary and Alana demonstrate more regularly on foot. They run with intensity and purpose, racing headlong in the direction of endless possibility.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.