Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Rated R (Drug Use, Sexual Material, Language)
Now playing at Laemmle Newhall and Regal Edwards Valencia
Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for teen movies set in the ’70s and ’80s. Whether made during my actual teen time period or current films set in my younger years, I love seeing some of my happiest times represented on-screen with cars, wardrobe and pop culture references intact. I find them comforting; they remind me that when I remember being happy, I actually was, and when I was despondent, things did get better.
“Licorice Pizza” takes place over a few months in 1973, a bit before my time in high school, and is set in the San Fernando Valley, far from my hometown. Nevertheless, the film’s emotional center will feel familiar to anyone who experienced first love in high school, and thanks to the remarkable production design, anyone who grew up in the vicinity of the 1970s. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights” and “There Will Be Blood”), the film stars Cooper Hoffman (son of Philip Seymour) as good-natured Gary Valentine, a teenager with an abundance of confidence and chutzpah. He’s a charismatic fellow, despite his average looks, and he’s managed to parlay a minor acting career into a full-time job opening businesses that he believes will ride the wave of any number of particular fads, including waterbeds and pinball machines.
However, what’s really captured Gary’s attention is Alana (Alana Haim), a somewhat drab and rudderless young woman who’s nine years older than Gary. Despite his romantic desperation (or perhaps because of it), Alana is drawn to Gary thanks to his unwavering attention, optimism and enthusiasm, and she becomes part of his personal and professional orbit. As a result, a school boy crush transforms into a deeper sense of love and longing for Gary, and the question that drives the movie is whether the age and temperament differences between Gary and Alana will be romantically surmountable.
And that’s pretty much “Licorice Pizza” in a nutshell: will Gary and Alana become a couple? Is such a thing even possible given Gary’s flea-sized attention span and Alana’s uncertainty about how she fits into Gary’s life and what she’s actually doing there? Because there’s not a lot of dramatic oomph to the film, the characters and the performances really have to do the heavy lifting.
Cooper is fine and has infectious energy as the lovesick yet emotionally immature Gary, but it’s Alana Haim who steals the show. This is her first screen performance after years as a rock star with her family group Haim, and she is irresistible as the lost and possibly-in-love Alana. She is funny, heartbreaking and cruel in her uncertainty, and it’s a career-making performance. Also effective and refreshing are star cameos by Sean Penn (intense as an out-of-control, late-model version of William Holden) and Bradley Cooper (hilarious as the short-tempered producer Jon Peters) who serve as bumps in the road for the will-they-or-won’t-they romance of Gary and Alana.
The film sort of ambles along episodically, tossing out mini-stories in a somewhat anecdotal style. Each bit is a puzzle piece that tracks the film’s central friendship/romance and the ways that both internal and external forces are shaping who Gary and Alana will become in the long term. It’s almost like a book of short stories all connected exclusively by two characters.
Truthfully, “Licorice Pizza” is meandering and overlong and includes a subplot involving the Los Angeles mayoral race that feels like one story too many. Despite this and the structure’s dramatic inertia, the film is both gentle and authentic at its emotional center. These characters feel both nostalgic and familiar. With a bit of patience, “Licorice Pizza” is a rewarding experience.
Special mention should be made to the killer soundtrack (no surprise in a Paul Thomas Anderson film) and the remarkable recreation of the San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s. I wasn’t there, but I wish I had been.
Jed Blaugrund is an English teacher at West Ranch High School, and a resident of Stevenson Ranch. Before becoming a teacher, he graduated from the USC School of Cinema/Television and worked for more than 20 years in the film business.