From the director of "Phantom Thread", "There Will be Blood", "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia", this is the story of a teenage boy's first love set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973.
Is Licorice Pizza merely set in 1970s Los Angeles, or was it actually made there? Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film was shot around the city’s San Fernando Valley suburbs at the end of last year, but it immerses you so completely in its chosen era, and is so gloriously untroubled by the whims and neuroses of our own, you could be forgiven for thinking Anderson had somehow stepped through a chink in space-time to shoot it.
Part of that comes from its gorgeous surface details: the old-fashioned tumble and snap of its dialogue; the gloriously un-airbrushed, readily caricature-able faces of its cast. But it’s also thrillingly hard to get the measure of, at a point in history when most American films land in front of us already algorithmically sorted and ideologically planed.
Is it a gently surreal first-flush romance? A mellow screwball picaresque? A story about what it means to grow older in a town that still hasn’t managed to wrap its head around the concept? Yes, yes, yes – and so many other things too, none of which slot together neatly, but instead make virtues of their fuzzy edges. Anderson’s screenplay was inspired in part by various tall tales told to him by Gary Goetzman, a former child actor turned producer, and the result is messy and improbable in exactly the same way that truth is often messy and improbable. If you had to pin down its genre, it would be real life.
It stars two untrained newcomers, both making miraculous, can’t-rip-your-eyes-away debuts. One is Cooper Hoffman, the 18-year-old son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, with whom Anderson made five films before his death in 2014; the other is 29-year-old Alana Haim, one third of the cult pop-rock sister act Haim.
Hoffman plays Gary Valentine, a child TV star ageing out of employability, while Haim is Alana Kane, a spunky but directionless photographer’s assistant. He’s 15, with the showbiz-honed confidence of a man twice his age; she’s 25, but views the adult world with the suspicion of a 12-year-old warily skirting the high-school playground. But why wouldn’t she? Her boss is the type to wordlessly slap her bottom as she walks past. If that’s what being grown-up means, why not lead a teenage existence well into your twenties?
The age gap between Gary and Alana has inevitably caused a storm on social media, where depiction always apparently equals broad-grinned endorsement. (See also the running joke about an imbecilic white restaurateur, played by John Michael Higgins, who affects a toe-curling Oriental accent while talking to his Japanese spouse.)
In context, though, the awkward age difference is one of the sweetest things about Licorice Pizza, which is deeply concerned with that bleary transition between childhood and adulthood, and the way it occasionally (and perhaps especially in a place within Hollywood’s orbit) stretches well into middle age. The central plot, to the extent that it even exists, follows Gary and Alana’s various attempts to find a sense of purpose, by turns spurring on and thwarting one another’s progress. He opens a water-bed emporium which eventually morphs into a pinball salon; she dabbles in acting and politics and otherwise tries to escape her strait-laced Jewish family, enjoyably portrayed by Haim’s own sisters and parents.
Yet throughout, there is a sense that they’re less moving forward through their own life stories than drifting sideways through other people’s. On their adventures, Gary and Alana encounter various elder statesfolk of show-business, or versions of them: a resplendently creased and gravelly Sean Penn is a thinly veiled version of the actor William Holden, while Bradley Cooper almost steals the film as the volcanically tempered producer (and beau of Barbra Streisand) Jon Peters. Meanwhile, reality intrudes in the form of a nationwide fuel shortage: a sequence in which a removal van runs out of petrol at the worst possible moment has a hair-raising Laurel and Hardy comic finesse.
Anderson captures the essence of the time so effortlessly it feels almost accidental. But this kind of meandering requires consummate precision and artistry to pull off.
Robbie Collin, CHIEF FILM CRITIC The Telegraph, 30th December 2021.
As a title for this California pastoral from the sunlit west coast 1970s, Licorice Pizza is whimsically inspired. According to writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s actually the name of a now defunct SoCal record store chain. I was hoping he was making that up, like Anthony Burgess’s supposed cockney phrase “Queer as a clockwork orange”. But no. It really did exist, though the movie itself teeters between reality and nostalgist-hallucination.
This is a love story set in 1973 (Erich Segal’s novel is in fact slyly positioned in one shot), and far too interesting and complicated to be called “coming-of-age”. A grinningly fast-talking 15-year-old boy meets a bored 25-year-old woman who works as assistant to a photographer taking pictures for the high-school yearbook. She is in equal parts amused, intrigued and depressed when this kid starts hitting on her, and she realises that she is somehow interested in him.
Anderson makes glorious movie stars of his two newcomers. Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is eerily assured as Gary Valentine, a heavy-set kid with iffy skin whose child-actor career in TV and movies is coming to an end, and is therefore turning his various side-hustles into the main event, running his own cockamamie company selling waterbeds. Alana Haim, of the pop band Haim (for whom Anderson has directed videos), is superb as the permanently exasperated Alana Kane, a young woman with Barbra Streisand’s beauty and charisma; appropriate, perhaps, as Streisand’s notoriously quick-tempered onetime boyfriend Jon Peters is played by Bradley Cooper in a walk-on role, as one of Gary’s dissatisfied waterbed customers.
The love between Gary and Alana, if love it is, does not run smooth. Alana breaks Gary’s heart by holding hands with another child actor hardly older than he is; Gary infuriates Alana by putting the moves on a girl his own age. Alana retaliates by flirting with ageing movie star Jack Holden (Sean Penn), presumably based on William Holden (why not just make him William Holden?) and then uptight political candidate Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). But we all know, even if we can scarcely believe it, where this is heading. And this hypnotically gorgeous, funny, romantic movie freewheels its way around from scene to scene, from character to character, from setpiece to setpiece, with absolute mastery. You float and ripple around it as if on a waterbed. But every casual line, kiss, automobile-ride, set-up and joke is a joy.
Anderson says that Gary’s character is partly based on former child actor Gary Goetzman who grew up to be Tom Hanks’s producing partner, and partly on a kid he saw in 2001 trying to chat up an older woman in high school. Why did he reposition the story in 1973? Well, he is superb at evoking that era; perhaps an allusion to Harold and Maude is intended, though the nearest thing to cinematic quotation is a scene weirdly close to the political campaign office moments from Taxi Driver. Yet could it be that Anderson has chosen the 1970s for what many suggest was Jonathan Franzen’s motivation in choosing that era for his new novel Crossroads? Backdate your story to the disillusioned-yet-still-groovy 70s and it’s easier to explore issues of transgressive love and sex in the right mood of tolerant romantic adventure without getting bogged down in 21st-century gender politics?
Maybe. The ironising 70s might also, incidentally, make it easier to get away with the perennial male fantasy of the teen boy entrancing an older woman (yeah right). The setting certainly allows characters to drive very, very fast to places where they drink very, very large amounts of alcohol: in fact, the driving scenes are rather like those in Quentin Tarantino’s LA-period film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and whereas Tarantino had crazy Charlie Manson, Anderson has freaky Jon Peters smashing up cars. There’s also a cinephile fetish-moment where Gary and Alana wind up in front of a movie theatre marquee advertising Live and Let Die (although Edgar Wright got there first with his vision of the Thunderball premiere in Last Night in Soho). We get jukebox slams of Paul McCartney’s Let Me Roll It and David Bowie’s Life on Mars, and in this film we do indeed see LAPD lawmen beating up the wrong guy: Gary.
This is lighter and sunnier than previous Anderson pictures; subtract the porn and indeed the sex from Boogie Nights and you have something like it; remove the metaphysical anxiety from Inherent Vice and that comes reasonably close, too. It’s such a delectable film: I’ll be cutting myself another slice very soon.
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 15th November 2021.
Total Number of Responses: 42
Film Score (0-5): 3.57
91 members and guests attended the screening of Licorice Pizza.
You delivered 42 responses which is a 42% response rate giving the lowest score of the season so far at 3.57. We had the most responses on the website ever, with 17 of you using it to record your observations.
A number of people have asked where the title of the film came from.
Here is an extract from an article in Newsweek.
‘As the film is set in California in the 1970s, the director eventually settled on a title that evoked that time period for him. He explained: "Growing up, there was a record-store chain in Southern California called Licorice Pizza. It seemed like a catch-all for the feeling of the film. I suppose if you have no reference to the store, it's two great words that go well together and maybe capture a mood."
Where did that store get its distinctive name? It has been widely reported that the name comes from an old Abbott and Costello routine, but in a 1986 Los Angeles Times article, the company's then-senior vice president Ruth Sims said it came from the album Bud & Travis...In Concert, in which the folk duo joke that the record was so unsuccessful that it was being sold in feed stores as a "licorice pizza."’
Thank you all for taking the time to give us your views.
All collated comments are below.
“Initially, I thought Licorice Pizza was a straightforward rom com, showing a couple who seemed made for each other, as it rips away the perceived barriers between them with all sorts of diversions – not unlike episodes of some American soaps. There's some subtlety in some of the spikier stuff as well, but love is an escape from reality, patterns of innocence conceal for example a suspicion of murder in Soggy Bottoms that may make two naïfs become criminals. But of course not. Mistaken police leave, some additional police station scenes but then the film redirects itself into a handful of pointed moments that disrupt the 'California dream'. Thought the two leads held our attention with a relationship both passionate and chaste (will they, won't they?), alongside danger, family weirdness and eccentrics of San Fernando Valley which brings in local businesses, Hollywood scenes and strange local politics. Liked the surface features including caricature-able faces of its cast and the nationwide fuel shortage: a sequence in which a removal van runs out of petrol at the worst possible moment. Was it too long for its own good? Not sure, but it was enjoyable!”
“An enjoyable & entertaining film with an excellent soundtrack especially needed when accompanying all the unnecessary running scenes which made the film overly long”.
“I was 13 in 1973. Gravesend wasn't much like the San Fernando Valley but the colour and sound palettes of the movie feel true and the movie fizzes along like a glass of dandelion and burdock that's been poured a little too enthusiastically. As such it makes a nice younger partner to 'Dazed and confused'. The energy and humour of the film make the bizarre lurches in plot and odd asides not only ignorable but convincingly reminiscent of being Gary's age. The increasingly improbabilities of the plot in the second act make it feel as it Alana and Gary are powering the story with their own bizarre fantasies until the clunking downshift of gear into a more grown up world as the hangdog features Nixon appear. It matters not, the ending is questionable but then the whole film is a querying of past social mores without the earnest navel gazing we are currently so given to. Always nice to see Tom Waits, lovely performances from the leads”.
“I really wasn't sure about this film at first but its crazy sweetness grew on me. I thought at the beginning that the casting people had done well To find actors to play Alana's sisters who looked so much like her: the credits explained this!!”
“Funny and sweet, if a tad unbelievable (has there really been a 15yr old that confident AND competent?!). Great natural performances by both leads, remarkable given debut performances for both. Hoffman definitely shows he has his father's traits, and Alana Haim proves rock stars can act”.
“Loved this film, although for me it could have been about 15-20 minutes shorter. Great reversing skills Alana”.
“Not impressed with this film. It would have better with a different ending. By the way, why show shorts of next week’s film when this week’s film is 2 hours long?”
“As promised, surreal in places. Enjoyed the reverse coasting lorry ride! Perhaps overlong. May have meant more if we remembered/knew more about mid-70 West Coast US culture!”
“Boring. Two and a quarter hours of a pointless collection of scenes signifying nothing. It felt as though the director couldn't think of anything to make a film about. Not very good acting either. Quietly amusing at times but not for two and a quarter hours. Sorry about that!”
“Most enjoyable, despite being put off by the trailer. It only struck me later that it was more about Alana than it was about Cooper. He was the constant after she kept being let down by her attempts to find a more "adult" boyfriend”.
“Brilliant film, if slightly on the long side”.
“Strangely entertaining, not a great plot but an interesting view of the 70s. Exploitation of women, typical of the time I'm afraid and terrible example of anti semitism! Not one person of colour, even in the background as far as I remember. None the less, I enjoyed it, the fashion, the cars the silliness”.
“Ranked as very good but bordering on excellent. Very different with some really funny parts. Convincingly 1970's and strong performances as Alana and Gary. For a long film it didn't drag, but guess there were scenes that could have been cut out to make it a bit shorter. Thanks for another good choice”.
“My initial reaction was to dismiss this as akin to bubblegum music, but the more I think about it, the more impressed I become”.
“Whilst their could easily have been 30 minutes more on the cutting room floor without any major loss I still enjoyed the film. It was quirky and it made me laugh! It felt very episodic…as if it was intended as a Saturday early evening 'teens' TV show! There were some great scenes & sequences e.g., the lorry episode but not sufficient or consistent enough for me to rate it more than average”.
“Had a non-violent Tarantino vibe about it which I enjoyed. Visually very appealing and I loved the soundtrack. Quirky story with good good acting and interesting cameos from Penn, Waits and Cooper. A smidge over-long but kept me engaged”.
“Enjoyable but a little too long for me. Two great authentic central performances and some fun cameos from Sean Penn and Tom Waits and others”.
“Amazing film – I was glued all the way through. Great performances and soundtrack”. “Great fun”.
“Got icked out at by the ending (wouldn’t dream of going anywhere near a 15-year-old.) but well-made film. No clue why it’s called Licorice Pizza”.
“Twenty minutes too long, but different and engaging and fun to watch”.
“I enjoyed it. Full of characters…wanted to know what happened to some of them. A very unusual film!” “Good film with strong…and surprise cameos”.
“Would have enjoyed more without the subtitles”.
“Good Fun. Caught the period perfectly – very well acted and the length of it was helped along by great music”.
“Good female lead but way overlong and somewhat repetitive. I couldn’t help wondering if they could have made it with ‘younger girl/older man’. I think not so what makes this OK?”
“Amusing. Took some understanding”. “Often amusing but too rambling and too long”. “Good in parts – could have been shorter”.
“Overlong and incredibly boring apart from a small number of very funny jokes. Ultimately a film with nothing to say”.
“Oh dear – quite seriously bored. ……disappointing”. “What a load of rubbish. Appalling dialogue – meaningless”.
“What a load of rubbish – the worst yet”.