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Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim and Bradley Cooper
Classification R; 133 minutes
Opens in theatres Dec. 24
True love blooms for the world to see, sings Nina Simone on July Tree, a beautiful song that is given beautiful prominence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s beautiful new film Licorice Pizza. That’s a hell of a lot of beauty, I realize, but there isn’t a better word to describe this wonderful gift of a film, which follows the blossoming of a true sort of love – but in the pure, messy, heartbreaking, hilarious, layered way that only a filmmaker like Anderson is capable of delivering.
A comedy, a drama, a romance, a memory, Licorice Pizza is the director’s warmest and fuzziest creation. But this isn’t a return to some missed or forgotten form – a half-careful look at any one of Anderson’s films, even the harder-edged likes of The Master and There Will Be Blood, reveals a man who has always been a giggly comedian, a sly observer of human foibles, a conjuror of worlds, a hopeless romantic. With its San Fernando Valley setting, its playful remixing of history and culture, its love of cosmic happenstance, its pursuit of all-deliberate-speed momentum, and its deeply flawed characters grasping onto one another with a desperate kind of manic glee, Licorice Pizza represents the uber-P.T.A. picture.
If you have ever fallen in love with one of his films, then you will become instantly smitten here. And if you have ever felt hard done by one of his films, for whatever reason, then consider this a humble plea to at least sample a tiny little slice of his peculiarly flavoured pie.
Loosely based on the 1970s adolescence of Anderson’s friend and Hollywood producer Gary Goetzman, Licorice Pizza follows two young Californians as they stumble their way into adulthood. On one end is the 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman), a child actor who is rapidly aging out of the entertainment industry, but quickly finding his way into various entrepreneurial schemes. Older but somewhat less emotionally mature is Alana (Alana Haim), a 25-year-old photographer’s assistant who isn’t sure what to do with her life, but knows that she deserves more than what she is being offered by the so-called responsible adults surrounding her. After meeting at Gary’s high school during class photo day, the two strike up what is at first a friendship – one based on custodial duties, as Alana is enlisted to chaperone Gary to a television gig in New York – and then something more complicated.
It is that “complicated” part that may trip some audiences up. Already, a mini-war is being waged in certain performative critical circles about the 10-year age gap between Gary and Alana. It’s problematic, it’s dangerous, it’s gross, etc. But Anderson is, simply put, no idiot, and he uses the ever-present illicitness of whatever is going on between the two as the film’s central tension. There isn’t endorsement, just as there isn’t condemnation. Anderson presents the relationship in messy and genuine terms, asking his audience to parse how sweet or uncomfortable it makes them feel – even if the answer might be both at the same time.
But if life is a zone of grey, Anderson is also eager to make sure that, aesthetically speaking, our world is full of colour. Licorice Pizza recreates the Valley of 1973 with delightfully exacting detail – it is the sincere brick-by-brick nostalgia of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood but with an emotional resonance absent from Quentin Tarantino’s time-capsule of a film. As Gary and Alana gulp sodas in dark lounges, chase each other down marquee-lit streets, and trade knowing looks in pinball arcades, Anderson plunges his audience into a time and place equal parts joyous and haunted. It is achingly real, thrillingly alive, deeply heartbreaking.
Perhaps it would feel slightly lesser-than if Anderson whiffed the casting, but c’mon – this is Anderson, he’s not going to miss. Even if he takes a huge swing by hiring leads who have never acted on-screen in their lives. Hoffman, the son of one of Anderson’s favoured collaborators, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, bursts onto the scene with an endearingly slippery presence that channels his father, a young Edward Norton and the wise-beyond-his-years smart-alecky-ness of Rushmore’s Max Fischer. Haim, best known as one of the three sisters in the chart-topping band of the same name, makes for a perfectly exasperated foil to Hoffman’s smooth operator. The actress has a certain skill for delivering Anderson’s dialogue with a pop – words explode out of her mouth as if conjured from deep within her heart, not some screenwriter’s page. Together, the two young actors deliver startling, star-making performances.
Which is great, because they might otherwise be eclipsed by a handful of high-profile supporting appearances that Anderson assembles to fill out the story’s margins. The biggest flex is getting Bradley Cooper to play the infamous hairstylist/movie producer Jon Peters, who briefly enters the story when Cooper and Alana install a waterbed in the man’s Hollywood Hills home. Anderson reportedly received permission from the still-alive Peters to go ahead with this bit of meta-fiction, but I’m not quite sure the former boyfriend of Barbra Streisand imagined how far Cooper would take his interpretation. It is an epic act of burn-it-down outrageous that deserves all the memes it will surely inspire.
Meanwhile, we haven’t even gotten around to talking about the work by Sean Penn (playing a Steve McQueen-esque cad), Tom Waits (a booze-hound director), Skyler Gisondo (Cooper’s slick acting rival), Harriet Sansom Harris (a deranged child talent agent), and a very special split-second surprise appearance by a regular Anderson collaborator that, if you’re able to catch it, will leave you with a wide grin.
The only sour note, and not an insignificant one: a running gag involving John Michael Higgins’s racist restaurateur character and his disdain for Japanese culture. A generous reading could be that Anderson is satirizing the ignorance of Valley progressives circa ‘73, but the scenes are executed with a tonal immaturity so disengaged from the rest of the film that they undermine whatever point the filmmaker might be making.
Everything else about Licorice Pizza, though – even its unexplained title, which refers to a chain of Los Angeles record stores but mostly acts as its own kind of ambiguous mood-setter – clicks.
Watch the best film of 2021 wherever and whenever you can, and be thankful there is still plenty of beauty in this world to go ‘round.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.