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Film Review: Licorice Pizza

8 January 22 words: Aaron Roe

Paul Thomas Anderson maintains his winning streak…

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn
Running time: 133 minutes

San Fernando Valley 1973. He’s 15, staring zit-faced into a mirror, combing his hair, and an exploding cherry bomb is the only thing that breaks his preening. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) has his life all figured out, he’d have you believe. She’s 25 walking aloof, wondering how the hell she’s ended up working for "Tiny Toes" whilst cursing the high-schoolers as they shove past her, paying Alana Kane (Alana Haim) no mind. Gary, however, does. Jacked up on all of the hormonal confidence you’d expect from a budding actor with his eyes set on the big time, Gary punches well above his weight when he asks Alana out to dinner, and she lets him know it. “I’m not going on a date with you, kid,” she sniffles, but there’s something with his persistence, his cliché-ridden lack of self- awareness that she finds endearing. She lays down the platonic ground rules, and the pair embark on a revelatory friendship. With this opening scene the director picks us up and places us at the feet of our young protagonists and we’re instantly caught up in the slipstream of their young lives. 

When we think of Paul Thomas Anderson and the Seventies, we think about the way he guides us through the dizzying haze of Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice with a whimsical hand, and his latest immersion, Licorice Pizza is bristling with all of the needle-dropped nostalgia you’d expect. The shenanigans of child actor Gary and his would-be chaperone Alana are similar in essence to the Dirk Diggler chronicles, and PTA spares no expense with his dizzying moves and deadpan comedic timing as he weaves together another dysfunctional family.     

But there’s always a sprinkling of salt amongst the coming-of-age caramel; an undercurrent of unrest that often creeps in, like the darkness of an Encino sunset, and the pitch-perfect performances from newcomers Hoffman and Haim cover a spectrum of angst. Garry is about as independent as a 15 year old gets. His mother often works away and he’s mostly left to his own devices with only two things really there to guide him: money and his crotch, with his sidekick little brother always in tow. Alana assumes the role of supervising adult for whichever side hustle Gary and his entourage pick up, but she’s got problems of her own. A house of five, Alana’s home is claustrophobic, almost intrusive in comparison to Gary’s, but she’s the only one grounded in any kind of adult realities. Through her eyes we see a slice of Americana still nursing a post-Manson, post-JFK hangover.

Proves once again this director is incapable of making a bad film

Licorice Pizza is constantly enveloped in oddball mysticism lovingly brought to life with some brilliant cameos from Hollywood A-lister Sean Penn – some that only last for a scene, but capture so much of the mysticism of the period. Who else but PTA would bring together Sean Penn and Tom Waits as a pair of relics of the golden age of cinema, or combine the 1973 oil crisis, a psychotic Bradley Cooper playing movie producer Jon Peters and Alana Haim driving a truck to create one of the tensest scenes of the year? These characters, blinded by their own narcissism, give the film a zany hang-out quality; each vignette lingers in my memory, and I often find myself wanting to revisit the familiar faces, sculpted by wonderful character performances.

The film is sure to raise a few eyebrows with the central relationship, and I spent a few minutes into the film trying to gauge how problematic the narrative is – and some of the dry, casual racism is sure to make people squirm. But it’s easier to stomach when you view it through the prism of the Seventies as a transgressive period. Fortunately, the storytelling is seamless enough to win us over and the performances by Hoffman and Haim especially are both hilarious and heart-warming in their authenticity prove once again that this director is incapable of making a bad film.

Did you know? Benny Safdie, co-director of the crime thrillers Good Time and Uncut Gems, appears in the film as real-life politician Joel Wachs.

Licorice Pizza is now showing in cinemas

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