“Licorice Pizza” is a coming-of-age romance written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. The film follows 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) as they fall in love while traversing the chaos of 1973 San Fernando Valley.
The film’s main goal is to be a love letter to this time period, similar to Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and it accomplishes that in spades. “Licorice Pizza” was clearly made with a ton of passion and reverence for this time period. It engulfs the viewer into its world through the music, grainy film, production design, and general look of the actors. The actors don’t look like actors here — they look like real people. The teenagers have acne, the adults aren’t built like bodybuilders or swimsuit models, and the whole setting feels so lived-in and dirty.
Another similarity to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is that both are, as Tarantino would call them, “hangout movies.” The film is essentially a bunch of stories about these 2 characters over this year, and it works beautifully. It’s very easy for hangout movies to become aimless & sloppy (e.g. the aggressively boring “The Power of the Dog”), but “Licorice Pizza” is far from that, and its go-with-the-flow style of storytelling is actually quite charming.
This film is also full of memorable and exciting sequences that make use of the time period, particularly the Oil Crisis. For example, there’s a 20-minute section of the film dedicated to Alana, Gary, and their friends installing a water bed for Bradley Cooper’s character. Hijinks ensue, causing them to flee in their truck, which then runs out of gas and can’t be refilled, so they must drive backwards down a steep hill with almost no control of the vehicle. The editing, direction, acting, and lack of music make the sequence enthralling & nail-biting, and I genuinely believe that it will be remembered as one of Anderson’s most iconic scenes in the future.
The cast is also a highlight. The film has a tight focus on Alana and Gary, as at least one of the characters are in nearly every scene of the movie. Haim and Hoffman excel in their roles. They feel so organic; all of their discussions feel like documentary footage rather than movie scenes, which is also thanks to Anderson’s phenomenal script. While the other cast members don’t have much time on screen, they all give great performances, especially Benny Safdie as Joel Wachs, a fake politician running for mayor who is in denial of his many faults. Wachs in particular was a compelling character; it was tragic watching him push those who care about him away in order to win a race he’s doomed to lose.
Unfortunately, some of Anderson’s pretentious tendencies are present in “Licorice Pizza.” Firstly, the title is ridiculous. Any title that you have to look up in order to understand is a horrible title (e.g. “Quantum of Solace”), and this is no exception. Not only do the characters never say “licorice” or “pizza,” but the actual reasoning behind the title is absurd: apparently “Licorice Pizza” was the name of a record store Anderson grew up loving — how are we supposed to know that?
The ending was also pretentious, as it’s essentially just an “oh, the movie’s over now” ending. It’s like the filmmakers were too tired to shoot the actual ending, and instead decided to abruptly end principal photography and move on to the editing room. Some critics might call the ending “profound” and say that it symbolized something, but all it was was a scene that happened to be the last one in the film.
Overall, “Licorice Pizza” is a highly enjoyable, charming, and warm film made with a ton of passion from its writer/director. It does suffer from some of Anderson’s pretentious tendencies and it needed to be trimmed down a bit, but it’s a strong movie that deserves the majority of its praise.