Movie: “Licorice Pizza”
Release date: Dec. 25, 2021
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Runtime: 2 hours 13 minutes
Genre: Comedy, drama
Columnist's rating: A
"Plot" has become a buzzword in online discussion for trying to articulate what makes a movie great. The best film of the year, “Licorice Pizza,” doesn’t have one at all.
The "plot," one could say, is that Gary Valentine and Alana Kane, played by Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, respectively, run around the San Fernando Valley in the early '70s, taking on various endeavors that allow them to continue their happy-go-lucky lifestyle for a few more weeks.
If you’ve ever set up a lemonade stand or made friends with a kid outside your grade level, then you’ve had enough life experience to properly see the world through the eyes of these characters.
The film follows 15-year-old Gary and 25-year-old Alana as they found a waterbed company, audition for Hollywood productions, volunteer for political campaigns and open a pinball arcade. Each one of these endeavors is only loosely connected, as if Gary’s spontaneous imagination is directing the film.
That assessment is somewhat joking, but the truth is that the film is inspired by director Paul Thomas Anderson’s childhood in the valley and stories passed down to him from famed Hollywood producer Gary Goetzman.
Anderson’s films have always been personal — he’s made five films about the relationship between fathers and sons — but they are rarely this sweet.
“Licorice Pizza”'s biggest surprise is that it’s an accessible, feel-good comedy. Viewers familiar with Anderson’s films will be waiting for the shoe to drop. When is that trademark angst going to bleed onto the screen? There are mysteries and dark figures lurking in the shadows, but they never fully reveal themselves.
The characters who have the potential to bring this edge up end up becoming the butt of the joke. Among these are Sean Penn’s Jack Holden, a movie star who shows off with Alana for a rowdy bar crowd; Tom Waits’ Rex Blau, a director who goads Penn into the stunt and real-life mega producer Jon Peters, played by Bradley Cooper, who hires the kids to install a waterbed in his home.
All of these encounters go awry, but they end in close calls that allow Gary and Alana to brush off the consequences and run away to their next adventure.
Characters are constantly running in this film. No one walks to where they want to go. If you can’t remember the last time you just decided to bolt somewhere out of pure excitement, then good — neither can I.
It’s touches like this that create a dreamlike euphoria that makes it hard to remember you’re even watching a movie. The Doors are even featured on the soundtrack, and it doesn’t get more ethereal than Jim Morrison.
The music accentuates every scene beautifully. Gary Valentine comes running down a freeway past a line of cars as David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” soars in the background. These moments have made Anderson’s movies in the past. The music doesn’t create intense points of tension and release like the “Jessie’s Girl” drug deal from “Boogie Nights,” but the soundtrack still feels just as essential to the movie.
Anderson chooses not to deploy Alana’s musical talents as a real-life member of the band HAIM, but he gets an incredible debut performance from her nonetheless. Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, also delivers a revelatory debut. He gives Gary an ego that is so recognizable — the irritating but alluring confidence of the popular kids from high school.
Coming-of-age movies tend to fall into a trap where they make the lead a bit of a dope if their primary struggle is romantic. Gary is fast-talking and a hustler, which makes the gut-wrenching drop in his expression whenever he sees Alana with another guy resonate all the more.
The film’s greatest achievement is being able to capture that world-is-ending feeling every teenager gets when something goes wrong and then follow it up with a sequence of crazy fun. It’s an authentic feeling that emulates the rollercoaster of young adulthood better than most films of the genre.
A Christmas release is just too perfect for this type of film. If you’re the kind of person who buys into the Christmas spirit and wants to relive childhood, then this movie is perfect. But, if you’re just feeling lonely and want to escape to the valley with some friends, I can’t imagine a better set of misfits to do it with.
"Licorice Pizza" opens in theaters in national-wide release on Christmas Day.