I’m not going to forget you. Just like you’re not going to forget me.
Paul Thomas Anderson is no stranger to films with mature and controversial themes, with films like Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice on his resume; both of those also alluding to his love of the 1970’s as a setting. Anderson returns with Licorice Pizza; a coming-of-age tale that also embraces controversy with its narrative.
Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old child actor based on Gary Goetzman, meets the 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) when she is in his school, assisting with picture day. Immediately taking a liking to her, he invites her to meet him for dinner, which she accepts; beginning an unusual friendship, and working relationship, as Gary uses his wealth from acting to start a number of unusual business ventures with Alana by his side, with the two clumsily navigating their deepening relationship.
On the surface, Anderson took a real risk in casting two first-time actors as his leads from Licorice Pizza, but that’s not how it played out. Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, definitely takes after his father; and as Anderson seemed to know exactly how to get the most out of Philip, he gets a lot from young Cooper here as well. Gary primarily moves between confidence and arrogance as the outward display of his personality, despite clearly harbouring some insecurities beneath the surface, and Hoffman walks those lines with the skill of a much more seasoned actor here. It’s a performance that is complimented well by fellow newcomer Alana Haim, whose own prowess is something to behold here. Haim is a revelation; the range of emotion she can infer through nothing more than a look is astonishing and she can do even more with her vocal delivery; she stole nearly every scene she’s in (with one exception, which we’ll get to later). It’s a performance which should instantly be put into the Hall of Fame of debut film performances, and it’s frankly an insult that she hasn’t received an Academy Award nomination for this role, especially considering that Anderson doesn’t take the easy road by crafting a character with a fondness for singing; Haim barely uses the talent for which she’s already best well known, if she uses it at all (I don’t remember any scenes that feature her singing) and that is not a detriment to her performance at all.
While Hoffman and Haim take centre stage in the piece, there’s a broad range of supporting actors who build the world around them. Alana’s family is played by Alana’s real life family; her sister Este and Danielle and parents Donna and Moti. There’s a bevy of child actors on hand to play Gary’s friends, but it’s the adults we meet along the way who best shape the weird world that Gary occupies. Mary Elizabeth Ellis is criminally underused as Gary’s mother Momma Anita, and she essentially disappears after the first act; which is a shame, as she puts in an affectionate performance. Tom Waits and Sean Penn have a stand-out scene as Rex Blau and Jack Holden respectively, characters based on director Mark Robson and actor William Holden. Penn’s scene against Haim has a moderately uncomfortable element for those who are familiar with his proclivity towards… younger women, though he plays Holden as arrogant and appropriately sleazy for those of us who disapprove of that sort of thing, and he does it well. On a more positive note, Harriet Sansom Harris has a single dynamite scene as Gary’s agent Mary Grady; one which had the screening I was in openly in tears of laughter. Similarly hilarious, but for different reasons, was Bradley Cooper as film producer Jon Peters; a dynamite and scene-stealing turn that is hilarious and terrifying in equal measure, and is one of the most memorable performances in Licorice Pizza, which really has to be seen to be believed.
John Michael Higgens also gives a memorable performance as Michael Frick, but for staunchly different reasons; and we’ll need to get a little into spoiler territory to really dissect it, so apologies here. An LA businessman who represents a more uneducated aspect of the 1970’s, Frick is the owner of a new Japanese restaurant, alongside his Japanese immigrant wife Mioko (Yumi Mizui), and Frick is outrageously racist; speaking to his wife in English with an incredibly over-the-top Japanese accent, and interpreting her answers, given in Japanese, without actually understanding what she’s saying. The first scene he’s in manages to demonstrate the overt racism and sexism that was a part of life in 70’s Hollywood, and there is absolutely no doubt that Frick’s behaviour toward his wife is racist. It is the combination of the almost cartoon nature of these moments, combined with the stunned response of everyone else around him when he does it (and, in fact, there is a particularly angry energy coming off Mioko in that first scene), that demonstrates that Licorice Pizza is in no way celebrating the attitude; but the narrative does rely on the moment for humour, and raises the question as to whether using scenes like this to that end is appropriate in modern cinema. I will admit that I did let out a startled guffaw at the first instance of it happening, though it was primarily motivated by my shock at its inclusion and was followed by a gasp; but when Frick returns in a later scene and repeats the behaviour, it did not spark the same response from me; and there was decidedly less laughter throughout the theatre I was in as well. It’s a small shadow, but it’s there; and while it isn’t the only moment where Licorice Pizza shines a light on outdated mindsets of the 70’s, it’s the only one that really doesn’t play out the way that Anderson probably intended it to.
Licorice Pizza doesn’t just rely on performance to build its world, and Anderson has built an incredibly believable look at 70’s LA through location, costume and set design. Contextual news clips are used effectively to both place the action and inform the narrative at times; with Alana’s turn as a volunteer for the mayoral campaign of Councillor Joel Wachs (played brilliantly by Benny Safdie) providing both context, a reflection on those aforementioned outdated attitudes, and some nice moments of character development for Alana. Classic cars rule the roads and Gary’s affection for striped shirts and flared chinos is ousted only by Alana’s array of floral-print shirts and purple corduroys. I managed to catch a screening of Licorice Pizza being presented on 70mm film, which I’m sure helped deepen the nostalgic framing through sets and landscapes; this film feels distinctly 70’s as it moves around our leads, and the soundtrack builds on that even more with artists like Nina Simone, David Bowie, Seals and Crofts and Gordon Lightfoot.
It is that last artist who leads me to my other issue with Licorice Pizza; which unfortunately falls right at the film’s climax – but we’ve gotta get into it, so if you want to avoid spoilers for the end of the film, stop here and skip to the last paragraph – I’ll let you know when you can come back in.
It is If You Could Read My Mind which is included on this soundtrack, which features the line;
“You won’t read that book again,
‘Cause the ending is just too hard to take”
…and it is the ending of Licorice Pizza that really skewed my response to the film, as it removes a certain level of ambiguity around Gary and Alana’s relationship and makes something explicit that should have been left vague. There is a ten year age gap between the two, which is not unusual in and of itself, but despite that Gary is characterised by having a confidence beyond his years, he is still explicitly a minor throughout the events of this film. Things which transpire in the closing scenes, despite how representative they may be of the inner confusion present within both Gary and Alana, go some way to making their relationship suddenly seem Not Okay, and I found myself feeling quite uncomfortable with how Anderson decided the piece should end. There’s some debate online involving terms like grooming, and I don’t think that is the intention of the film at all; in fact, the narrative is pretty clear that Alana is the resistant party in regards to a more romantic angle for almost the entire film… but I do feel that it would have made for a healthier climax if it had stayed that way, rather than playing out as it did.
Okay, you can come back in for the end.
Licorice Pizza is an excellent character-driven film that builds a fascinating and engaging world around its central character. Nostalgic for and critical of the 70’s in equal measure, it’s an easy-going ride with some surprisingly challenging elements. The greatest takeaway should be the incredible debut performances of Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, as well as the sheer force of a fully unleashed Bradley Cooper; but the more morally ambiguous moments cast a shadow over those which Licorice Pizza may struggle to come out from under. You’ll have to see it yourself to decide.