Paul Thomas Anderson would like you to travel back in time with him. He’s taken us backwards before: the early 20th century West in There Will Be Blood; a curdled postwar America in The Master; London’s Fifties fashion world in Phantom Thread; the morning-after hangover of Sixties SoCal counterculture in Inherent Vice; that transitional moment from Me Decade funkiness to coked-up Reagan-era jitteriness in Boogie Nights. But now, the 51-year-old writer-director wants you to join him in returning to a very specific moment in a very specific place. It’s 1973, deep in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. Variety shows are still on TV. A gas shortage is about to cause a lot of headaches for Californians. Japanese restaurants are an exotic novelty, Hollywood’s old guard continue to get rip-roaring drunk at the swankier joints, pinball remains temporarily illegal in the greater L.A. area, and the latest in sleeping technology — something called a “water bed” — will soon sweep the nation. The days of deranged cult leaders inspiring young women to murder people in the Hollywood hills have passed; now, there’s merely a bearded showbiz narcissist roaming the land, offering to make pretty females peanut-butter sandwiches. Once upon a time in Encino…
Licorice Pizza is a lot of things, from cockeyed rom-com to dual coming-of-age tale, from affectionate ode to American can-do hucksterism to the sort of ramblin’, amblin’ hang-out movie that you wish you could lounge about in for days. But it’s also very much a memory piece, and even though Anderson was only three years old when this boy-meets-girl story takes place, you can tell that he’s returning to a period that he very much wants to trap in amber. Proust had his madeleines and Sunday mornings at Combray. PTA has his movie cameras, production designers, and the Tail O’ the Cock restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. The film is such an intimate, personal look back that you almost feel like you’re flipping through someone’s old scrapbook. Even the title, which refers to a regional record-store chain in Los Angeles that was big at the time, is essentially a non sequitur that he used because it inspired a highly subjective you-were-there longing. The movie has no logical reason to be called this. It’s also kind of perfect.
But the fact that Anderson doesn’t sacrifice complicated characters, oddball tangents, some truly inspired WTF exchanges, and a chance to watch actors do extraordinary work (in other words, a Paul Thomas Anderson movie) in favor of simply touring some old haunts speaks volumes. He doesn’t want to weaponize his nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake so much as use it to infuse a rush of youthful exuberance into what feels like an early-1970s movie made today — a Minnie and Moskowitz for millennials.
From across a crowded high-school corridor, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) spots Alana Kane (Alan Haim), rolling her eyes and grumbling about her lot in life. He’s 15, and waiting in line to get his yearbook picture taken. She’s 25, and works for the company hired to take snapshots. Valentine — with this surname, you can’t accuse Licorice Pizza of burying the lede — begins to chat her up. He’s a child actor, and maybe she’s seen some of his stuff? Kane has not. Also, she’s not going to go to dinner with him, so he can nip that idea in the bud. Still, he keeps talking. She keeps listening. As Nina Simone’s gorgeous “July Tree” plays in the background, you can see this kid begin to win her over ever so slightly. The only thing Anderson adores more than a tortured antihero is a hopeless romantic — see: Punch Drunk Love — and you practically feel him, along with the audience, leaning in as this dogged young man displays some serious game. Kane isn’t going to be his girlfriend. But maybe she’ll meet him at a restaurant later. Maybe not.
This would be the raw material for a stalker drama, were it not for the fact that both Hoffman and Haim give this opening back and forth such a nice ‘n’ easy screwball flavor. “Don’t be creepy, please,” she tells him when she does show up, reluctantly, and they share a meal. “Don’t call me all the time, OK?” she says as she tells him her phone number at the end of the night. When Valentine needs someone to chaperone him for a TV appearance in New York, she comes with him. When he decides to start a waterbed company, one of many other irons this budding hustler has in the fire, she goes into business with him. No direct romantic overtures are made, but the more she’s drawn into Valentine’s orbit, and the more they make each other jealous by pursuing peripheral relationships, the stronger the connection these two form. Resistance is a constant. It’s also futile.
To try and describe more of the plot of Licorice Pizza would be to assume that it has something you’d call a plot in the first place. Anderson is more interested in setting up scenarios and misadventures for these two, and letting incident after incident collide into each other with an almost stream-of-conscious randomness, than getting from point A to point B. (Precedents abound, of course. Quick, what’s the plot of American Graffiti? Or Dazed and Confused?) There are false arrests, other business ventures, fall-outs and fuck-ups. Sean Penn shows up as a variation of William Holden, as he and Tom Waits (!!!) play out a bit of late-night celebrity folklore involving cocktails and motorcycles. Harriet Sansom Harris plays a casting agent who swoons over Kane (“You’re like an English pit bull dog! With sex appeal! And a very Jewish nose!”) and turns a five-minute scene into the comedic equivalent of a jazz solo. A flirtation with politics puts Kane in the orbit of real-life City Council member Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), a vignette which only half-works. Remember that earlier reference to a bearded narcissist? That would be Bradley Cooper’s singular, monomaniacal take on hairdresser-turned-Hollywood producer Jon Peters, a raging id in a tight, white disco suit and the devil at the center of the duo’s wildest and craziest night. Like foie gras or pharmaceutical cocaine, his performance can only safely be consumed in small quantities, yet completely leaves you craving more, more, more.
The director’s die-hard fanatics — the P.T. Ander-stans — will swoon over a long tracking shot through a “Teenage Fair” that glides past a Rat Fink poster, Herbie the Love Bug, and a Munsters-related cameo too rich to spoil. And there’s definitely enough auteur-ial spray, from some choice needle drops to the dread build-up in the Peters sequence, to fuel a few dissertation papers on style and signature. But even coming from a filmmaker who never met an ensemble cast he didn’t love, Licorice Pizza is an actor-driven vehicle, and one in which Anderson clearly hands the wheel to two fairly untested screen performers. Maybe some eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Cooper Hoffman was set to play this geeky young man on the go, given the long working relationship between Anderson and Cooper’s father. It only takes a few minutes of watching him onscreen to see exactly why he’s perfect for the role; pedigree doesn’t even play into it. One scene, in which Gary holds up a finger to quiet someone as he lights a cigarette, channels his late dad. Other than that, the kid is completely his own man, and there’s a fine balance of confidence bordering on arrogance and an uncomfortableness in his skin that Hoffman brings to Valentine. It’s a beautifully layered take on both bootstrap ambition and awkward adolescence, as well as a peek into this would-be Romeo’s mindset.
It’s Alana Haim, however, who walks away with the movie as much as her character strolls away with that teenager’s heart. As one-third of the group Haim, she’s used to being on stages. (Her sisters also appear in the movie, as do their parents — the whole thing is rife with showbiz familial connections, with small parts played by Sasha Spielberg, Tim Conway Jr., and George DiCaprio, whose son apparently once made a movie about an iceberg and a ship.) But the way she cracks open Alana — infusing her with irritation, curiosity, world-weariness, envy, hope, empathy, and finally, a pitter-patter sense of puppy love — makes you wonder if her talent as an actor might be equal to her musicianship. She is, simply put, 1970s screen presence personified, and to watch these two lost souls realize they could be soul mates is such a rush. Anderson may be concocting his own personal flashback to a funkier age of innocence, but he lets these two make it their own double-act as well. Then he generously invites the audience in as well. There are two courtships unfolding in Licorice Pizza, and only one of them is happening on the screen. The other is between us and the movie. Guess who ends up punch-drunk and smitten?