Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in five of Paul Thomas Anderson’s first six films, and were he still alive, he would no doubt continue to be the director’s busiest company member. His absence is felt throughout Anderson’s latest, an oddball picaresque called “Licorice Pizza” (opening in theaters Friday), whose 15-year-old protagonist, Gary Valentine, looks like he’ll grow up to be Philip Seymour Hoffman. That’s because he’s played by Cooper Hoffman, Philip Seymour’s son, in his acting debut.
The likeness is uncanny, and so is the flinty intelligence and kind eyes. Watching Cooper Hoffman act is like unearthing footage of his father’s early work, and it’s one of the joys—and there are many to be had—in Anderson’s wobbly spin on the coming-of-age dramedy.
Rivaling Hoffman in auspicious screen debuts is that of Alana Haim, one of the sisters in the indie-pop family band HAIM, whose combination of sarcasm and idealism, smarts and vulnerability, makes for a natural and complex presence in front of the camera. Her character, also named Alana, is 10 years Gary’s senior. It’s 1973 in the San Fernando Valley, and they meet at his high school on picture day, where she’s joylessly working. Gary has decided that despite their age gap, she will one day be his wife.
Alana is resistant; he’s barely pubescent, after all. And yet, a child actor and an old soul—“Ever since I’ve been a kid, I’ve been a song and dance man,” he declares, with the confidence of a Ziegfeld entertainer—Gary deploys effortless charm to chip away at her defenses ever so gradually, trying to win her heart by roping her into his various business efforts. These entrepreneurial adventures begin to take on an episodic structure, as Gary, hustler to the stars in a changing Hollywood, chases one Next Big Thing after another, from selling waterbeds to opening a pinball emporium. Alana, adrift and hoping to find meaning in her life outside of the affections of a teenage boy, searches for her calling through acting and politics.
As improbable a 15-year-old as Gary seems, truth is often stranger than fiction. Anderson based the character on stories he heard from producer Gary Goetzman, a child actor who did, in fact, open a pinball parlor, start a waterbed business, and deliver one such bed to Barbra Streisand’s partner, Jon Peters; in “Licorice Pizza,” the sequence plays out, perhaps a scoche too long, with Bradley Cooper as Peters.
Like Anderson’s previous work, “Licorice Pizza” has a gonzo streak to it, sparked by jolts of the surreal. A water pipe randomly erupts in a boys’ restroom. At one point, Gary is inexplicably, forcefully arrested for murder. In one of the movie’s strongest detours, Tom Waits, always a rumpled delight, plays a sort of pied piper, leading the denizens of a Hollywood steakhouse out to a nearby golf course at night, so that Jack Holden (Sean Penn), aging star of motorcycle-driven action pictures, can race his hog on the greens, with Alana holding on tight. Penn, as humorless an actor as the movies have produced, allows a rare bit of self-parody to inflect his onscreen image, portraying a fossil of Old Hollywood clinging to the vestiges of his virility.
One could slide “Licorice Pizza” into a pantheon of period bildungsromans from Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” to Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous;” certainly its soundtrack, full of soon-to-be-iconic deployments of Vietnam-era rock and soul cuts, matches that of these earlier films. But, owing to its freewheeling structure and cheeky industry mythos, I see it as more of a teen-movie spin on Tarantino’s Tinseltown remix “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Is it a bit too indulgent? Yes, but it’s not nearly as gnomic as Anderson’s meandering “Inherent Vice.” Is it minor Anderson? Probably, but so is one of my favorites from his oeuvre, “Punch-Drunk Love,” whose throwback romanticism it shares. Anderson directs with such an indelible magnetism that the movie never drags, even when it overstays its welcome.