Ever since debuting with Hard Eight and Boogie Nights in 1997, Paul Thomas Anderson has
been a constant presence in the conversation about the best contemporary filmmaking auteur
working today, and he continues to solidify himself as such with his new film, Licorice Pizza.
Curiosity has been rampant about how a melodrama would feel in the more nuanced style he’s
refined since There Will Be Blood in 2007, and sure enough, the results place his coming-of-age
story among the best movies of the year for its nostalgic tone, the infectious chemistry between
the two leads, and a script that’s as funny as it is heartfelt in its depiction of platonic love and the
boundlessness that came with youth in the 1970s.
Licorice Pizza follows Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a fifteen-year-old who has already
found success as an actor in Hollywood and makes boatloads of money assisting his mother at
her public relations company. Gary already has it all, but wants one more thing: the affections of
Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a portrait photographer who he meets on picture day at his high
school. Alana straight-up rejects him, insisting she’s ten years his senior, but Alana still finds
charm in him amongst their banter, and not only indulges his request to take her out to the
restaurant he frequents, but also joins him in his side hustle as a waterbed salesman.
While Gary strives to prove to Alana that he’s a big shot despite his age through a myriad of
business ventures, Alana embarks on a journey of self-discovery through the California suburb
of Encino as she deals with an overbearing family, pursues acting work, and contemplates why
and how her life got to the point where it’s all about the daily hijinks with Gary and his tween-age
friends, and encounters a plethora of eccentric characters along the way, from the intimidating
Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) to director Rex
Blau (Tom Waits) and his favorite actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn).
Anderson’s filmmaking genius comes in the form of several decisions he makes in directing
Licorice Pizza. In choosing to shoot it on 35mm film, his latest creates a nostalgic feel by
evoking the grainy look of cinema from the era in which the narrative takes place. This not only
amplifies the cool colors of outdoor scenes where Gary and his friends drive in the early
morning to an expo, but also adds to the intimacy and tenderness of quiet scenes by adding
more contrast to shadows and making colors pop with beautiful vibrancy.
Meanwhile, the shot compositions Anderson frames with co-director of photography Michael
Bauman aid in the nostalgia as well as the beauty of young love through the common motif of
mirror reflections, such as a moment where Alana and Gary embrace in the reflection of a glass
door after an incident that provokes her concern for Gary’s well-being, and again when the two
watch a radio DJ read an advertisement for their waterbed emporium with their excitement
taking shape on their faces reflected in an interior window.
Whether it’s a bizarre situation that Gary and his friends find themselves in or the way Gary
asks the bartender he knows by name to bring him and Alana two Cokes, Anderson’s script is
rife with scenes and lines that make Licorice Pizza one of the funniest movies of the year. One
example comes as Jon Peters nonchalantly tells Gary he will do something horrible to him and
his family if something’s wrong with his house when they deliver a waterbed, and another scenario sees Alana and Gary trying to find each other through a Los Angeles suburb in what starts out as a build to a lovely moment of drama, but Anderson cleverly writes his way out of a clichèd result in favor of one that ends in laughter for all spectators. More humor is to be found in the banter between the two leads, because Haim and Hoffman have great chemistry in every scene they’re in together, with Gary constantly trying to be something he’s not, only for Alana to attempt to bring him back to reality with a sharpness and wit that gives her a sense of control that she doesn’t have over her own life.
Gary and Alana are an amazing pair, but in online circles, there is a controversy surrounding
their dynamic given the ten-year age gap between the two characters. However, it’s very
evident throughout that Gary and Alana are platonic through and through with only romantic
undertones, and Gary even stops himself from doing the wrong thing with Alana in an affecting
scene midway through the film. And yet, some audiences may also question how easy it is for
a 15 year-old kid to start all the enterprises Gary does in the span of one summer. This
leaves room for the story to be interpreted as a fantasy, with Alana representing what licorice
pizza is in a figurative sense: a longing for something that can never be made real, or something that sounds great to have on paper but is ultimately too much of a good thing. There’s another debate over scenes featuring Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), one of his mother’s clients that owns a Japanese restaurant, and his habit of talking to his Asian spokeswoman in a horrible impression of an Asian accent to the point of being racist. It’s clear on the face of his Eastern assistant that she doesn’t appreciate his caricature, but doesn’t call him out on it for the sake of keeping up appearances in a professional environment. On that
note, Licorice Pizza could also offer a different interpretation as an honest portrayal of a time
where nothing was taboo, and viewers’ tolerance of Jerry’s tone deaf manner and Alana’s risqué explorations through the men of Encino will vary from person to person.
Audiences able to look past those elements, however, will be endeared by Gary and Alana and
want to see them succeed in everything they put their mind to, be in hysterics over the hilarious
circumstances in which they’ve found themselves, and tap their feet to the eclectic soundtrack
curated to reflect the sounds of the era. With his entire filmography, Paul Thomas Anderson has
inspired a plethora of young people to make movies, and now in 2021, he has made the movie
those aspiring filmmakers wanted to make about their youth when they came of age.
His newest movie depicts the clumsiness, the temptations, the sweetness and the beauty of
young romance, in addition to all the misadventures that come with youth in Southern California,
where endless possibilities, freedoms, celebrities and the magic of cinema are everywhere
anyone looks. For those able to frame the film in the context of the time period that inspired it,
Licorice Pizza is an endearing delight.