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Licorice Pizza (2021) film review
Image: MGM

Film

Licorice Pizza Shows the Sweeter Side of Paul Thomas Anderson

The story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973.

Licorice Pizza Review

Two of the best films Paul Thomas Anderson has made in his career are Inherent Vice, which was set in Los Angeles in 1970, and Boogie Nights, set in the same city beginning in 1977. With his new film, Licorice Pizza, Anderson has split the difference, setting the action in the L.A. of 1973. But only that, he’s made a film not about the sleaze of the adult film industry or the messy collapse of the 1960s counterculture, but rather the joy and exuberance of being young. 

Brilliantly styled, wonderfully soundtracked, and screamingly funny, Anderson has made his Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and also his Almost Famous at the same time. Buoyed by a pair of first-time movie stars in the main roles and some much bigger stars in smaller roles, Licorice Pizza is near the top of Anderson’s filmography, and one of the best films of the year. 

Licorice Pizza, which takes its name from a defunct chain of record stores in Southern California, is Anderson’s take on the coming of age genre, mostly centered on a relationship between two young people: There’s Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, the son of the director’s late longtime collaborator, Philip Seymour Hoffman), a high school student who’s both an actor and serial entrepreneur. He’s something of a 1970s answer to Ferris Bueller, and I don’t only say that because of something bad happening to a red Ferrari. 

His counterpart is Alana (Alana Haim of the all-sisters rock group Haim), an aimless woman in her mid-20s. The two form an instant connection that isn’t really a romance- it’s more of a friendship, business partnership, and mutual crush, although jealously is essentially a constant. Their chemistry is amazing, even if they weren’t two people who had barely acted before. 

Licorice Pizza
Image: MGM

Yes, he’s a teenager and she’s 25. But their relationship is less scandalous than you’d think, for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s relatively chaste. For another, they look like they’re about the same age, and he’s much bigger and taller. Still, I expect the late fall season to be marked by discussions of such relations in both this movie and Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, by people who egregiously misread both films and can’t tell the difference between depiction and endorsement.  

The film has the characters getting into all sorts of ’70s-specific adventures, some of which involve real-life people like mega-producer Jon Peters (played by Bradley Cooper); William Holden (Sean Penn, in his best on-screen turn in years), and politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie.) 

Some of these things are funny if you know the backstories. Cooper was pressured to drop Peters’ producer credit for his A Star is Born movie due to Peters’  #MeToo history, and now he’s playing Peters himself, as a manic, lecherous coke fiend. And a scene in which Penn and an even drunker director (Tom Waits) pontificate at a table while Alana sits silently can only call to mind that interview Fiona Apple gave about that “one excruciating night” spent in a private movie theater with her then-boyfriend Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, as they bragged to one another. 

Another notable thing is that between the camera shoots Alana Haim and Peters talking up his then-girlfriend Barbra Streisand, this is a rare movie that unapologetically celebrates the sexiness of Jewish women. 

Licorice Pizza review
Image: MGM

On top of a well-chosen soundtrack of vintage standards, the film boasts yet another first-rate musical score from Jonny Greenwood, who already composed two of the year’s best in Spencer and The Power of the Dog. 

Yes, the plot meanders a bit and doesn’t quite explain certain transitions between, say, Gary’s acting career and his start as a mattress salesman. And a bizarre subplot involving a restaurant owner (John Michael Higgins) and his interchangeable Japanese wives just plain doesn’t work, although I don’t doubt it was based on some real guy who really did that. 

This is a truly special film, one which goes near the top of the list of Anderson’s work. It’s probably the first movie this year in which I walked out of the screening, and would have immediately walked back in and watched it again if I could have. 

Now Streaming

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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