With uproarious one-scene celebrity cameos, a revelatory magnetic lead duo, a great jukebox soundtrack, and a hilariously-sharp script that radiates nostalgia and warmth, Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most effervescent and quick-witted film since Punch Drunk Love.
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” The late 60s and early 70s were tumultuous times for the rough rowdy crowds, flower power, music revolution, cultural change, technological invention, the insurrection of cinema, and the multitude of aching crises. Many films have captured the lifestyles of those decades from different perspectives and social statuses, for example, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, or Hal Ashby’s Shampoo. There are also the “hangout” movies, which are films set during those times (or later) like Dazed and Confused, Foxes, or Everybody Wants Some!!. Now, Paul Thomas Anderson goes back to tell a story set in the 1970s, which is his funniest to date: Licorice Pizza (named after the record store chain).
Set in 1973 San Fernando Valley amidst the oil crisis, this is a love story, less tormented than Punch Drunk Love, between Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim) as they take on the troubled early 70s Los Angeles. As the film progresses, the two slowly fall in love and go through different situations with the goal of escaping their realities. The film takes a vignette-like approach, with each segment showing Alana and Gary’s struggles on making ends meet, both in love and their eventual “getaway”. A line in the film said by Sean Penn’s character, William Holden, embodies the different interactions that either Alana or Gary have: “wait ‘till you meet this character”. Anderson hides many stars in-between the various scenes of the film, and most of them have a moment or line that is extremely funny and very memorable.
It can be the tobacco smoking raspy-voiced Rex Blau (Tom Waits), the manic Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), suave atheist Lance (Skyler Gisondo), the appearance of the complete Haim family, or even Mary Grady (Harriet Sansom Harris). These side characters make the vignette technique work, the conversations with them being some of the most humorous scenes in film this year. But, even if these celebrity one-scene cameos are perfect, the leading duo of Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim steal the show and blow you away. They are like Robert Altman-level star-making finds. Even though this is their acting debut, the performances they deliver feel as if they have done this for years with their acute line delivery and the chemistry between them being so palpable. One compliment that I could give the film and the cameos from the multiple stars were longer-lasting.
I wish I would have seen more of Rex Blau and his interactions with William Holden, as well as seeing Jon Peters go complete rager at the gas station. You could spend hours in the world of Licorice Pizza, seeing time transgress and hanging out with all these characters. This is what Tarantino tried to accomplish in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or George Lucas with American Graffiti but failed to do so. Paul Thomas Anderson understands the essence of the 70s and pours nostalgia right into our veins with a rewatchable love story. It’s an ode to the decade he grew up in, and he loves it so much that he needed to show it through another lens. And to be completely honest, this was one of the best experiences at the cinema this year.