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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Licorice Pizza (2021)

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

Originally titled Soggy Bottom, Licorice Pizza’s name change lends itself to the nostalgic warmth its title brings to writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. Named after a popular record store franchise in Southern California during the 70s, PTA confirms that when he thinks of that name, it sends him straight back to his childhood, a time of carefree, uninhibited joy. This could’ve trapped Licorice Pizza in a nostalgic death zone, a coming-of-age story that relies heavily on the visual and aural aesthetic wonders that a period-set film in the 21st century would bring to its audiences. Thankfully, this is PT Anderson we’re talking about here. Style over substance is very rarely the case with his movies and once again, substance and style compliment each other perfectly as he develops rich, complex characters from a world so lovingly crafted through not only its aesthetic production values but from the page itself.

Taking place in 1973, Licorice Pizza follows the burgeoning friendship between 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim). It would appear to be a simple coming-of-age story, but with every PTA film, especially post-Magnolia, things are far more complex beneath its surface.

Outside of Inherent Vice, PTA’s recent purple streak of deep character studies could be seen as nothing other than deadly serious and darker psychological case studies to the average viewer. And although his most recent output in Phantom Thread is often-times incredibly funny, most wouldn’t place it among the funnest PTA experiences one could have à la Boogie Nights or Punch Drunk Love. Licorice Pizza is, for me at least, the funnest and funniest film he has ever made. That’s not to say that his films are boring, not in the slightest. Licorice Pizza just has PTA returning to his breeziest, sweetest and most energetic since Punch Drunk Love and Boogie Nights. It's as though he found an old trunk in his basement filled with trinkets and memories from his youth, throwing him back to the happiest times of his childhood. But as mentioned before, PTA doesn’t use this nostalgia as a crutch to support flimsy narratives and uninteresting characters, it’s merely used as a single nail that strengthens an already strong structure that consistently feels authentic with each character detail, beat, line and truly laugh-out-loud situation they find themselves in.

Alienation, loneliness and dysfunctional families are key themes and ideas that befall almost every single one of PTA’s protagonists and the worlds they inherit. Although some of these themes are still felt and explored in Licorice Pizza, we find ourselves revisiting a theme that is highly prevalent, yet often overlooked within his first four films in particular: Reinvention. Hard Eight has John C. Reilly’s character, with the help of a mentor played by Philip Baker Hall, turns from a grieving, broke drifter and into a traveling gambler. Almost the entire cast and plot of Boogie Nights has everyone striving to be greater, therefore feeling the need to reinvent in hopes of finally finding their true place and calling in the world. Magnolia is filled to the brim with characters trying to discover their true purpose and in turn, reinvent themselves to find some sort of happiness and closure. And finally, with Punch Drunk Love, a shy Barry Egan uncharacteristically shows up to work only wearing a blue suit, with an unconscious hope this will change things for the better. These key moments of reinvention have characters attempting to discover and possibly re-discover themselves. This is where the coming-of-age story of Licorice Pizza makes use of this theme so effectively. Depending on who you are, you either see yourself more in Gary, a highly confident hustler moving from one scheme to the next with an endless sense of enthusiasm and excitement. Or you’re Alana, someone lost in a perpetual “what now” limbo, not quite knowing what to do with their life as we attempt to truly grow up. They're both in a constant state of reinvention. The stars aligned and brought these two together, forcing them to push and pull each other towards understanding themselves better, however much they infuriate and complement each other. We all need a Gary to push us to try something new and strive to be our best, while we also all need an Alana to remind us that our shit does stink.

Licorice Pizza lets the colourful, larger-than-life characters serve as the anecdotal focal point to each and every one of Gary and Alana’s (early) life stories. Although we have an inciting incident (their meet-cute at the very beginning), the film isn’t bogged down by a strict set of rules that force us towards multiple conflict and resolution plot points. We do get them, but with Licorice Pizza, it feels free from these rigid expectations, allowing for the anecdotal structure of each moment-to-moment scene add weight to their strange friendship effectively. It genuinely feels like we are sitting down and listening to Gary and Alana reminisce about all the crazy schemes and stories they got themselves wrapped up in. “Hey remember that time we reversed through the valley in a U-hall with no gas?”, “Remember that racist Japanese restaurant owner?” “Remember when Jon Peters threatened to kill us over a water bed?” This is where Licorice Pizza separates itself from the likes of other coming-of-age ensembles like American Graffiti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Dazed & Confused (just to name a few). Where those films had multiple stories strung together through multiple protagonists to their own vignettes/moments, Licorice Pizza places Alana and Gary at the center of the entire film in every scene. Even when they're involved in a strange, awkward situation with a potential scene-stealing cameo, we still have them at the center of it all, further strengthening their bond, as well as further understanding their wants and needs within the film's intended story and purpose.

Even though this film is by no means a semi-autobiographical story one would always assume with any original coming-of-age story from an auteur like Paul Thomas Anderson, it still feels like a love letter to the San Fernando Valley that is completely true and authentic to PTA’s heart. Based on some stories and schemes of former child actor and now film producer Gary Goetzman, it never feels like its someone else’s story. That’s why it’s so vital for filmmakers to inject their personal touch and themes that are true to them in each one of their films as they see parallels from their life in the story they either want to retell or interpret. This allows for universally relevant themes that PTA touches on in his filmography to outweigh the potentially alienating setting of Licorice Pizza for its audiences. Of course I can't relate to a place and time I have never been in, but themes of love, friendship, connection, reinvention, etc. allow for us to easily see ourselves in Gary and Alana's stories.

This is also what makes PTA such a great actor’s director. His material is always a speaker for what he wants to say and explore – they feel completely personal to his own journey, allowing these ideas to translate perfectly to his performers, letting them relate and grasp onto each idea and never letting go. That’s why he attracts the likes of Daniel Day Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix to his works - actors who are notoriously picky with their projects. And with yet another wonderful ensemble, PTA has each performer bringing out the best and worst aspects of themselves. They want to be introspective with not just their character but themselves as well.

Deep introspection may not necessarily sound like a fun time to endure for both audience and performer, but don’t worry, Licorice Pizza has its cast having an absolute blast. The script is funny, thoughtful and undeniably sweet, with each oddball character allowing Alana and Gary to grow closer together, as well as creating hilarious stories for them to reminisce about in the future. The pressure was most certainly on for Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman to deliver as the dual protagonists here, especially considering that this is their acting debuts, but they are completely effortless here. Total naturals that without the gentle, guiding hand of PTA, they might never have fully discovered and embraced. Their chemistry is out of this world, giving us the feeling that these two are indeed best friends bound to find each other. Cooper Hoffman appears to have gotten this raw, completely limitless acting ability from his father, the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, showing a sense of genuine charm instead of the precociousness that a trained child actor may have unwittingly brought to the role. He and Alana Haim bounce off each other's energy with ease, bringing out the best and worst in each other as we follow them through a relationship that can be both toxic with jealousy and completely joyous with a never-ending sense of youth and optimism for the future. Alana Haim taps into the frustrations of needing to grow up despite being completely uncertain of what her future holds. It’s a performance that is somehow completely assured in her character’s lack of certainty and desperate desire to find a meaningful and fruitful purpose in life. Along with Agathe Rousselle in Titane, Hoffman and Haim have given the most ridiculously impressive debut performances I’ve seen in quite some time.

The cameos scattered about also add an extra layer of charm and authenticity to the fluid rhythm of Licorice Pizza that drives the film to hilarious new heights for Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker who is consistently funny in every movie he has made. Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Skyler Gisondo, Harriet Samson Harris, and John Michael Higgins (just to name a few) are completely hysterical in each one of their segments, allowing for Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim to soak in uncomfortable moments that further enrich the depth of their characters, drawing them closer and further apart. Bradley Cooper in particular is a scene-stealer that allows him to have full control of an untapped rage and bulking, aggressive masculinity that is hard to look away from. But as mentioned before, the stars of the show are rightfully Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim – and thanks to PTA’s tendency to get spectacular performances from his cast, he prioritizes the importance of their journeys above all else, allowing them to share, and take, center stage.

PTA has trademark, spectacularly choreographed, roving steadicam shots that feature prominently in everything he has done (there are loads here), but one shot that he has truly mastered is the close-up. He lingers long and hard on characters, never letting them off the hook - allowing for a large gamut of emotions to reveal themselves as dialogue and scenes quietly progress. It somehow never leads to actors rushing through each one of these emotions, giving them a chance to experience these instances in real time. One particularly stunning use of the power of a lingering shot, although not a close-up, is on Alana when she is a third wheel at a dinner. The camera rarely cuts to the characters who are actually talking and instead focuses on her. It’s a brilliantly written, directed and framed scene that puts everything into perspective for Alana. It's one of PT Anderson's finest scenes of subtext - a stunning, nuanced realization that finally allows Alana to come of age when everyone around her either refuses to grow up or are growing up far too quickly.

Licorice Pizza, although at a lengthy 133 minutes, is one of those films I just never wanted to end. It’s infectious. It’s pure magic. It's an instant classic. It’s a true testament to the wizardry that Paul Thomas Anderson brings to everything he does through writing, direction and performances that are consistently organic, honest and completely believable - making it one of his most genuinely satisfying and essential works to date.

Where you can watch it: In Theatres (USA, UK, Australia), In cinemas on the 28th of January (SA)

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