Paul Thomas Anderson moves at a different tempo from other Hollywood film-makers. While they’re obsessed with outcomes, he is much more interested in process. This largely delightful rites-of-passage story, set in early-70s Los Angeles, isn’t about its young protagonists finding true love. Anderson instead concentrates on their very erratic journey towards it. The narrative style is deliberately rambling and digressive.
Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a precocious high-school student and child actor. Alana (Alana Haim), 10 years older, is a photographer’s assistant, coordinating the school yearbook snapshots. Gary is smitten by her and begins chatting her up. She is charmed but a little exasperated. After all, she doesn’t go on dates with 15-year-olds.
The film unfolds in episodic fashion as the two characters have various misadventures, sometimes together, sometimes on their own. Gary is a budding entrepreneur. He sets up the unfortunately named Soggy Bottom water bed company and then tries to take advantage of new laws which allow Californians to play pinball. (Apparently, the game had previously been banned in the State).
Alana, meanwhile, is drifting through her early adult years and trying to make sense of her Jewish heritage. She has acting ambitions. Gary helps her with the audition process, advising her to say “yes” to everything the casting agents ask, whether or not it is true. (Yes, she can speak Portuguese. Yes, she does know how to ride a horse).
Strange events happen all the time, as if they’re a part of everyday existence for young Californians. At one stage, Gary is arrested for murder. At another, Alana gets on the back of a motorbike with a drunken old Hollywood star, Jack Holden (Sean Penn), with whom she may be about to work on a movie. He’s keen to perform an Evil Knievel-like stunt and not overly concerned with her safety.
The film’s most glorious and hilarious set-piece involves Gary, Alana and their hapless friends trying to deliver a water bed to former hairdresser turned Hollywood big shot Jon Peters (a fine comic cameo from Bradley Cooper), who lives in a luxury house high in the Hollywood hills. It’s the middle of the oil crisis and everyone is running out of petrol.
Peters is narcissistic, obnoxious but with a certain creepy charm. He is in a relationship with Barbra Streisand but that doesn’t stop him making a move on Alana, and on almost every other woman who crosses his path. As she manoeuvres the delivery lorry through maze-like streets and across freeways, Alana turns out to have Lewis Hamilton-like driving skills.
Shot in rich, grainy fashion on 35mm film, Licorice Pizza does a superb job of recreating Los Angeles in 1973. It has the look and feel of old movies from the period like Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Anderson fills the film with evocative music, everything from The Doors’ “Peace Frog” to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”.
He also elicits utterly winning performances from his two lead actors. Hoffman has the same shambling charm and force of personality as his father, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Alana Haim, previously better known for her pop career than her acting, brings an ingratiating, spiky sarcasm to her role as the (slightly) older woman who can’t quite believe she is falling for a teenager.
The film turns the conventions of the typical high school romance on their head. It is subversive, funny and so full of charm that you easily forgive its rambling, shaggy-dog style approach to storytelling.