I generally like a lot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s works. A lot of of his movies are set in the San Fernando Valley because that’s where he was born and raised. It’s an odd community where a hairdresser like Jon Peters can live in a nice house in the hills and date Barbara Streisand. It’s also a community in which a 15-year-old like Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is an actor, attends high school, and works in businesses people twice his age would be more doing.
Gary comes off as a more cocky and arrogrant version of Max Fischer from Rushmore. He’s the type who will walk into a prominent restaurnat where the proprietor, who is old enough to be his grandfather, will cater to his needs. Gary is an actor but also helps his mother out with her public relations business but also gets interested in selling waterbeds and well as opening a pinball arcade once an out-dated ordinance is lifted. It’s a little bit unbelieavable. Yet to people like Anderson, the son of a TV personality, it’s the world in which he grew up and lived in.
The movie opens with Gary at school walking on his way to the gym for picture day when he passes by Alana Kane (Alana Haim), who looks like she should be in high school herself but is actually 25. She’s working for the photography company, Tiny Toes, which seems to hire a bunch of young-looking 20-somethings like her. In their short walk to the gym, Gary tries to ask Alana out for dinner by listing his film resume.
Does he want to seriously date Alana? Not at first. And she obviously tells him he doesn’t have a chance. But they decided to go out anyway. Alana lives with her very orthodox Jewish parents and sisters (played by her own real-life parents, Moti and Donna, and sisters, Danielle and Este) where she’s still treated as a child. It’s the era she grew up in the post-WWII southern California where it was still considered appropriate for young women to live with their parents until they got married.
Maybe that’s why Alana keeps hanging out with Gary and his friends. She can still live in her youth. At one point, she accompanies him to New York City because he needs a chaperone and his mother can’t go. He’ll appear on a TV spot along with a Hollywood celebrity, Lucy Doolittle (Christine Ebersole), based on Lucille Ball. But Alana becomes more attracted to fellow actor, Lance Brannigan (Skylar Gisondo), she meets ont he trip, But their relationship ends when he announces at a dinner with her family that even though he was raised Jewish, he’s an atheist.
Licorice Pizza is a different change for Anderson as the central focus is Alana rather than a central male figure. The age gap is unsettling and Alana knows it. And Gary, I think subconsciously knows it’s just not right. When he turns 18, it’ll be OK. But the entertainment industry at this time had celebs in their 20s hanging out with teen girls who couldn’t even drive.
But it’s still not right, especially during a scene in which Gary and Alana get into an argument when she tells a casting director she would be willing to do nudity. Gary is upset that Alana won’t show him her breasts. She eventually does but imagine if the roles had been reversed. In many ways, I think Gary just sees her as one of the guys as he hangs around with three peers who have no other role in the movie but just to be involved in his schemes as a type of cheap labor.
There’s also a recurring character of a Japanese restaurant proprietor played by John Michael Higgins who marries two Japanese women and talks to both of them in a racist, slow tone. I didn’t care for this guy and don’t know why he’s even in the movie, except to show Gary and his mother in the PR business. Yes, I understand it was 1973 and you could still get by with a “Me So Solly” joke, but it is still awful scenes when he appears.
To be honest, I really didn’t like a lot of Gary’s plotlines mainly because I found him and Hoffman’s performance too structured. Several scenes play like they should be written by Aaron Sorkin. He’s not really a likeable person. Nor do you realize what Alana would find in him except for his attitude which she grows tired of. There’s no spontaniety to these scenes he’s in.
Haim and the plotlines around Alana present a more natural vibe. At 30, she looks like she’s a young teenage girl. One of the characters even says he’s not sure if she’s an adult or a child. In real life, Alana, Danielle and Este are part of the indie rock band Haim who were nominated for Grammy Album of the Year in 2020. She gives off the natural girl next door look. The way she has her hair and her style seems like she was passed through a time portal from 1973. She will probably get some more roles in the future that are a lot better than this. Not to say that she doesn’t nail many of the scenes she’s in.
Toward the end of the movie, she goes to work on the mayoral campaign for Jon Wachs, (Benny Safdie), a real-life city council member who ran for mayor during this time. She mistakes Wachs’ attention for something more and when asked to meet him at a restaurant, she realizes it’s to be a “beard” for his boyfriend. There is a mysterious man in the restaurant she noticed earlier standing across the street from the campaign office. Is it a paparazzi? Does he work for the other candidate? During this scene, you can see it hit her how niave and gullible she has been.
Part of the movie’s problem is it’s too episodic. Gary seems to have clout to open up a waterbed store and then a pinball arcade. There’s an odd sequence in which they deliver a waterbed to the house of Peters (Bradley Cooper) that plays a little longer than it should. I’ve heard stories about how outrageous and full of himself Peters can be. I’m surprised he allowed Anderson to use his name. Maybe it’s because he thought it was funny to poke fun at himself. But the sequence serves a purpose to show how Alana is growing tired of hanging around with these kids.
There’s another sequence in which Alana reads scenes with Jack Holden (Sean Penn), a character based on William Holden, that is used to show friction between Anna and Gary, when they both spot themselves at the same restaurant. The sequence turns more outrageous as it goes on as Tom Waits appears as his character pumps Jack into performing some silly motorcycle stunt. I’m sure Anderson probably cobbled together many stories he’s heard but it drags the movie out.
I really wish Anderson had focused more on Alana than Gary. And I didn’t really like the ending because it seemed too cliched. And might I remind you again there’s a 10-year age gap and Gary is a minor. That’s where the bad taste comes in. This movie just ends wrong and comes to a different conclusion. I don’t think Gary should be with Alana. He’s obviouisly not mature enough for her. He doesn’t take the oil embargo of 1973 seriously until Alana explains it to him.
And Alana is right to be frustrated with his behavior. He wants to make a buck. She wants to make a change. He’s more interested in helping himself than anyone else. Alana might end up running with Gary telling him she loves him. But I’m certain it won’t last.
That’s another issue I have with this movie. There’s too much running. Running is always a bored trope in period piece movies and since this is set about 50 years in the past, it’s a period piece movie. I’m tired of seeing happy young boys running everywhere. I know it’s supposed to symbolized the innocence of youth or something like that. But all the directors aren’t breaking any new ground.
In a final note: If you’re wondering what the title is referring to, it’s a chain of records store in the valley. That’s it. It was called Licorice Pizza because someone made the comment that the black on vinyl records looks like licorice and since a record is round like a pizza, you can draw the conclusion.
What do you think? Please comment.