“Licorice Pizza”: Inexplicably Tasty
A review of “Licorice Pizza,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest nostalgia film.
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“Licorice Pizza,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film, revives the ‘70s spirit many know and love. Combining a timeless coming-of-age tale and an era-specific aesthetic, the film draws a modern audience into the dreamy world of southern California in the early 1970s. With both comedic and dramatic storylines, Anderson puts a realistic yet charming spin on an era that is often overdone.
The film centers on 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) who meet in the opening scene—picture day—where Alana is a photographer’s assistant and Gary a high school student. The pair’s age difference makes for an awkward encounter when Gary asks Alana to accompany him to dinner. Despite her initial protests, she meets him at a local restaurant where the two click.
The pair have their ups and downs, making the film excellently dramatic without forsaking its comedic elements. Alana’s quick wit paired with Gary’s simultaneous awkwardness and confidence give the film all the makings of a coming-of-age comedy while allowing for more serious plot points to shine through. Though Gary is the younger of the two, his mature personality creates an interesting dynamic between them where Alana often feels the need to prove herself to him. Thus, she pursues more serious career paths, eventually working in a campaign office and making Gary feel like she is leaving him behind.
As a result of Gary’s feelings toward Alana’s success, much of the conflict in the film stems from the age difference between the two leads. Gary acts like an adult—he owns his own business and is acquainted with many of the businessmen in his town though he is clearly still a minor. On the other hand, Alana can’t seem to grow into true adulthood and settle down. She still lives with her family and has a job she doesn’t want, working for an often crude boss and surrounded by teenagers all day long. Alana recognizes that the dynamic between her and Gary is fundamentally strange but still takes part in their relationship. Though the relationship does not become sexual, it still makes for an often uncomfortable dynamic. While Alana is likable and easy to sympathize with in many ways, it’s hard to fully commit to her character while acknowledging her relationship with Gary. Despite the inherently off-putting nature of the pair, the writing capitalizes on the awkwardness by implementing comedy into their dynamic, like when Gary orders two Cokes at a bar or calls Alana an “old lady.”
“Licorice Pizza” is the debut film for both Haim and Hoffman, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son. Not only is Cooper Hoffman following in his father’s footsteps in that sense, but Philip Seymour Hoffman also had a role in the film “Almost Famous” (2000), which explores the music world and groupie culture of the ’70s. However, family connections are not unique to Hoffman, with Haim’s real parents and sisters playing themselves in the film. Consequently, the family dynamics portrayed come off as hilariously realistic, with all of the perfect insults and remarks that come with them. Despite Hoffman’s young age and Haim’s musical background, the two command the screen even with a prolific side-cast. When featuring the likes of Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, and Maya Rudolph, the focus never shifts away from Haim or Hoffman.
With compelling performances and an engaging story, the only piece left to fit the complete aura of the era is the cinematography itself—and “Licorice Pizza” does not fall short. Shot on 35mm film, the film has the authentic look of ‘70s movies, effectively bringing the full tale into the modern day. The use of film preserves the authenticity of time-specific themes within the movie by aligning them with the look itself, from the way the camera catches the light to the way it makes the color-scheme stand out. From more technical elements like the set design to the family dynamics portrayed, the film is a nostalgia trip.
Despite the film’s romantic, nostalgic atmosphere, “Licorice Pizza” doesn’t glamorize the ‘70s, instead it offers a complex, nuanced perspective on the time period that most films fail to. While it is easy to get lost in the haze of the time, the film does not shy away from the less aesthetic culture of the time, rather, it becomes a central focus. Along with cultural critiques, the film also grounds itself in real events of the time, with a major turning point of Gary and Alana’s relationship being the repercussions of the oil embargo on their business’s success. Though the critiques of the era do give the film some more serious subject matter, they do not take away from the main storyline. The exploration of the less appealing aspects of the ‘70s gives “Licorice Pizza” a more practical, well-rounded telling of the time.
Throughout its run, the film never loses its charm. Perfectly capturing the groovy feel of the ‘70s, “Licorice Pizza” has just the right amount of nostalgia, drama, and humor, all making for a lively, coming-of-age film. “Licorice Pizza” is easy to appreciate because it feels like real life: despite all that happens, the story always comes back to Alana and Gary’s relationship. Though the premise of their relationship and therefore, the film, has the risk of overshadowing the rest of the film with an uncomfortable feeling, “Licorice Pizza” instead turns it around and gives back a funny and genuine tale of camaraderie.