“Licorice Pizza” is a blast.
That makes it sound like some sort of action-adventure flick. It is anything but.
In fact, it is a warm, meandering look back at Paul Thomas Anderson’s version of 1970s Southern California, specifically the San Fernando Valley. But it is in its own way as thrilling as any “John Wick” movie. It’s just that in this case, the thrills are not so tactile. They’re more esoteric. Building worlds for us to visit, if not actually inhabit, is a big part of successful filmmaking.
As he does with most of his films (“Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights”), Anderson succeeds with it here. It’s a kind of dream world, with the occasional dark edges that sometimes invade dreams. But it seems both affectionate and genuine, with few false notes.
Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman’s natural chemistry carries the film
Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman have a lot to do with that. Neither Haim, a member of the band Haim, and Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, have acted before. You’d never know it. Their performances play out as so genuine that they don’t really seem like performances — and it takes great acting to pull that off.
We meet them at a high school on picture day. Gary (Hoffman) is 15, a bit of a schlub but also, if not a celebrity, at least celebrity adjacent. He was a child actor, having appeared in a kind of “Yours, Mine and Ours” type film. Now he’s scrounging for commercials, but his name means something around town. He’s also a buy-quick businessman, using the money he’s made to invest in whatever the next big thing is, or might be.
Alana (Haim) is working for the photographer, a grabby creep. She’s 25, maybe; she fudges the figure. And Gary has decided that he is going to marry her someday.
She finds this ridiculous, but she also finds herself agreeing to meet him for dinner. Soon, not quite sure how, she’s chaperoning Gary on a trip to New York for a reunion of the movie’s cast. (Christine Ebersole is a tantrum-throwing riot as a Lucille Ball stand-in.)
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One of Gary’s co-stars (Skyler Gisondo) hits on her, lands a couple of dates but somehow, however awkwardly (and sometimes hilariously), Alana and Gary end up together. Not together together. Just friends and, as Gary invests in waterbeds that enjoy a brief boom, business partners.
This leads to one of the films best segments, in which they deliver a waterbed to Hollywood producer and Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend Jon Peters (as he constantly reminds everyone). Bradley Cooper has a ball playing Peters as a coked-up narcissistic wild man, unable to control any of his appetites. And it’s a ball watching him.
There are missteps, but most of what Anderson attempts lands perfectly
There are missteps. John Michael Higgins, who is white, plays a restaurant owner cycling through wives who are Japanese and presented by him as interchangeable. He talks to them in a ridiculous fake Asian accent. It’s meant, presumably, as a commentary on the casual racism prevalent at the time, but it’s a tough sell.
But most of the film lands perfectly. Haim’s sisters and parents play her sisters and parents, for instance. Her father Moti is hilarious. The actors are as invested in bringing this to life as Anderson is.
Both Gary and Alana are struggling to find their paths, if in different ways. He’s a schemer, grasping at every fad, self-aware enough to know he can’t act forever but unsure exactly what to latch onto next.
Alana is more classically adrift, not sure what she wants to do with her life so, at the moment, not doing much. She seems for a time more bemused by Gary than attracted to him, but she has nothing else going on, so why not hang out? She asks a friend while getting stoned, do you think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary? Because I do.
Gary shows interest in other girls. Alana has a bizarre dinner date with a fading star (Sean Penn, relishing the role) and goes to work for a mayoral candidate (Benny Safdie playing the real-life Joel Wachs), obviously attracted to him without knowing a lot about him.
All this is uncomfortable for the audience, almost unsettling. Gary and Alana are so comfortable together, in whatever configuration, that seeing them apart seems strange.
It all feels so real. Anderson’s vision of this world, this era, these people, is so winning that you feel a part of it, yet with the removal of an observer.
It works. That’s why “Licorice Pizza” is a blast.
‘Licorice Pizza’ 5 stars
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Bradley Cooper.
Rating: Rated R for language, sexual material and some drug use.
Note: In theaters Dec. 24.
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