Licorice Pizza is, like oil and water or chocolate and mucous, a pairing that absolutely does not go together. It’s no acquired taste — it simply lacks anything resembling an appeal. And yet… there’s always been something to the idea that the unlikeliest of pieces sometimes belong together regardless of the fit. That’s part of the theme running through Paul Thomas Anderson‘s latest film, an alternately meandering and engaging tale of young people roaming Los Angeles of the 1970s. When it works it’s a fun, nostalgic journey to the places, people, and memories of our own youth. When it doesn’t, though, it’s something of an indulgent and unlikely drag.
Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is a mildly talented opportunist who’s turned a minor success as a child actor into a teenage grift with simultaneous moving parts and balls in the air. The 15-year-old is in line for his school photo when he spots Alana (Alana Haim), the picture company’s makeup/hair girl, and decides to make his move. He’s confident and friendly, but while the 25-year-old dismisses him almost immediately she ultimately responds to his complementary and cocksure personality. As the weeks — months? years? the timeframe is entirely unclear here, but it’s probably just a summer — pass, the pair come together and drift apart, again and again, in some kind of rambling, unrealized romance. Gary starts and abandons numerous schemes and business ideas, Alana toys with bigger thoughts and the world at large, and both move effortlessly through an idealized memory of simpler times.
If that synopsis sounds as if it’s missing a plot, well, that’s because Licorice Pizza really doesn’t have one. That’s not a negative either as great films can stay afloat on atmosphere, themes, and character. Anderson’s latest doesn’t really reach the level of great, but it does manage to stay upright and engaging for the bulk of its 133-minute running time thanks in part to its cast and its tendency to rub shoulders with the idea of 70s Hollywood. It’s at its best as Gary, Alana, and a mass of unnamed kids run wild through LA making cash and making out — even if, wisely, Gary and Alana never manage the latter.
Hollywood in the ’70s is captured through fiction with brief flirtations towards something real, but there’s something of an inconsistency in the choices. Sean Penn plays an actor named Jack Holden who clearly is meant to be William Holden, while John C. Reilly pops in as Fred Gwynne. Christine Ebersole plays a comedic actor named Lucy Doolittle who is obviously Lucille Ball, but Bradley Cooper appears (stupendously) as real-life Hollywood producer Jon Peters. They all manage some smiles, but it’s Cooper who threatens to steal the film with a wildly intense and charismatic turn as the amped-up legend. He’s good enough that you might just wish the film would shift gears and follow him through his date night with Barbara Streisand.
The focus, though, remains Gary and Alana — to the point that a much-ballyhooed sequence from the film’s marketing featuring Cooper as Peters in a used car lot was removed from the movie — and it’s the smart choice for the “story” Anderson is telling with Licorice Pizza. These two kids, one underage and one too old to still be living at home, are equally lost and looking for something more. They think they find it together, something the film never comes close to convincing viewers of (despite the year’s most deflating final line of dialogue), and the film is their on again off again efforts to figure out exactly what it is they’re doing.
Both Hoffman and Haim are newcomers — he’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son, and she’s one-third of musical sister act Haim (her two sisters appear in the film as her sisters) — and both do good work here. They’re amiable and rough around the edges, far from Hollywood’s usual of polished, conventionally “attractive” leads, and that actually plays beautifully into the ’70s vibe. They’re alternately sweet and selfish, determined and confused, and their “hang-out” becomes something that reminds of your own lazy nights of meandering conversations, unexpected rule-breaking, and fiddling with hearts. There’s an appeal here that most plot-centric movies can’t touch, and it’s what makes the beats that don’t work more aggressive in their presence.
For the record — and spoiler warning, I guess — the much-discussed age difference between Gary and Alana is not really an issue as their oddball courtship remains unconsummated throughout. He’s something of a horndog while she craves the idea of someone wanting her, and unlike romantic comedies where you expect a relationship lasts beyond the end credits, theirs feels as if it won’t even last to the Best Boy credit. That’s despite the aforementioned last line of dialogue which leaves viewers suddenly sad for Alana’s prospects and well-being and ends the film on a downer for anyone paying attention.
Something that does warrant criticism, though, is a beat involving a character named Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins) who runs a Japanese restaurant with his Japanese wife. They’re side characters, but a conversation with the man sees him devolve into a stereotypical Asian accent for laughs. Licorice Pizza is no broad comedy, nor is it a social commentary. It’s designed as a casual hang-out film, and yet, this scene — so funny to Anderson that he repeats it later in the movie — grinds that casual nature to an abrupt halt. There’s no further purpose to the character, and the scenes seemingly existent solely for the lols. The film’s very nature as an episodic, shaggy trawl through Los Angeles means it’s going to be a series of peaks and valleys by design, much like LA itself, but that’s hardly a defense of moments both offensive and inconsistent.
Licorice Pizza is a far looser construction than most/all of Anderson’s previous films, and the result is a film guaranteed to strike viewers in a myriad of ways (even more so than most movies do). Those wanting a tighter, more focused tale will likely be put off by what they find, but if a rambling journey through the city of dreams appeals to you it’s a journey you’ll want to take. Just don’t be surprised if the smile on your face sours at that last goddamn line…