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Licorice Pizza (2021) – Review: Paul Thomas Anderson Has Crafted an Excellent Hangout Picture That Is Full of Life

December 23, 2021

Quick Thoughts – Grade A – Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted a perfect hangout picture that will put a smile on your face. Licorice Pizza explodes with life, and features one of the most likable and engaging casts of 2021.

After about 10 minutes of Licorice Pizza it becomes absolutely clear that director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson loved making this movie. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley in California, and that’s why this movie, set in1973, feels alive, vibrant and drenched with nostalgia. The California based film feels like a series of adventures from his life, and is loosely based on producer Gary Goetzman, who grew up as a child actor, and engaged in all sorts of shenanigans in the valley. The movie doesn’t have a traditional narrative, and instead has a story that showcases funny bits, wisps of memories, or stories Anderson heard while growing up. There’s a lack of urgency and feral energy, which is refreshing, because after Phantom Thread, There Will be Blood, Inherent Vice, and The Master, it’s nice that the biggest threats to the characters are an oil shortage, or being mistaken for a murderer and being dragged into a police station, where the police quickly learn they grabbed the wrong kid. 

Licorice Pizza focuses on the exploits of Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year old actor/hustler who spends his days opening waterbed stores, managing public relations for restaurants, and attempting to date the 25-year old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), whom he met during a yearbook photo session. Normally, a movie about a 25-year old and 15-year old engaging in a will-they-won’t-they relationship would feel exploitative (it is an odd choice), but, under the guidance of Anderson, the relationship feels palatable as they build towards something that’s more innocent than Lolita-esque. It’s a complicated relationship, but from the very first moment, when Haim and Hoffman meet at the photoshoot, you can tell the two actors enjoy each other’s company, and I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen such instant chemistry.

Since it’s a Paul Thomas Anderson film, Licorice Pizza feels totally immersed in the 1970s, and features some wildly memorable moments. Whether it’s Alana on a motorcycle with an old school A-list actor William Holden (Sean Penn), or Gary opening up a pinball arcade after he learns pinball will be legalized again, there are countless memorable moments that also allow Bradley Cooper, Tom Waits, Benny Safdie, Skyler Gisondo and Maya Rudolph to shine. The funniest moment in the film centers around Alana being interviewed by an acting agent named Mary Grady (Harriet Sansorn Harris – she’s so good). The performance by Sansorn Harris is perfect, as she’s impressed that Alana can seemingly do everything, and the words that come out of Mary’s mouth are beautifully unfiltered and hilarious. The moment is absurd, and the scene had everyone in the theater laughing. 

The cinematography by Anderson and Michael Bauman (a longtime collaborator with PTA) is drenched with sunlight and the camera is almost always roaming as it follows the young and energetic cast around as they run around the valley. Also, the costume design by Mark Bridges (Magnolia, Phantom Thread, Deep Blue Sea) feels authentic and understated. You get the feeling that a lot of work and research went into making the costumes era appropriate, as they never feel too 70s or faux-retro (from the people who made Phantom Thread, this shouldn’t be surprising). To top off the behind-the-scenes excellence, production designer Florencia Martin (who has designed sets for Haim music videos) had a lot of work to do as she had to recreate famous restaurant landmarks (without green screen), transform entire street blocks, and find enough picture cars to load up the streets. The 1970s setting never feels distracting, and it’s neat seeing how they didn’t lean into era tropes, and instead focused on giving it a modern-esque feel. Most impressively, is that the title comes from a music store chain named Licorice Pizza, and the store doesn’t play any role at all. It’s a neat throwback that forces people to learn more about the store. 

Final thoughts: I can’t wait to watch Licorice Pizza again. 

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