The following is an edited transcription of the video above.
Licorice Pizza is the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most critically acclaimed directors of the modern film era. If there’s any director still making films today who will one day be known as having one of the all-time great filmographies, I put PTA at the very top of that list if he isn’t there already.
Out of his nine films, I only count one as being a mild disappointment with audiences and critics, at least when it initially came out, and that’s Inherent Vice. And if Inherent Vice is considered your weakest film, well then that’s a very nice problem to have as a director.
Licorice Pizza takes place in early 70s Los Angeles, or more specifically, the Valley. It follows two young people, a 15-year-old child actor named Gary trying to figure out the next stage of his career—he’s played by Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman—and a 25-year-old woman working as a photographer’s assistant named Alana—she’s played by Alana Haim, whose real-life band has collaborated with PTA in the past, and her two older sisters from the band even make an appearance in the film as well.
Gary immediately pursues Alana romantically, even though she points out the obvious, that she’s too old for him and it would be, well, illegal. Nevertheless, the two become inseparable, platonic friends embarking on a variety of schemes. One of them includes a waterbed business that puts them in the crosshairs of the infamously eccentric Jon Peters, played here quite memorably by Bradley Cooper. At one point, Alana whims herself into politics, volunteering for a local mayoral candidate played by Benny Safdie.
Like most of PTA’s movies, Licorice Pizza is disarmingly lengthy and often comes off as meandering. We go from place to place and character to character, seemingly without purpose or a traditional story structure, where you have three recognizable acts and a climax. Now it does have those things, but it’s PTA’s usual oddball version, where anything goes and you never know quite what to expect.
One of my favorite things about Licorice Pizza is how it feels like a wonderful amalgamation of almost all of PTA’s best films. It has the quirky charm of 70s LA like in Boogie Nights, but also LA’s delightful unpredictability like in Magnolia. Side note: as someone who’s never been a fan of the desperate energy of LA, Licorice Pizza gets me close to understanding the appeal and at least sympathizing with it.
Now we don’t really have the epic gravitas of There Will Be Blood or the dueling, blood-curdling performances at the level of The Master. But one thing Licorice Pizza has that we haven’t really gotten from PTA in quite a while is a sense of humor and seemingly endless heart.
PTA’s films have always been about how human beings are inherently complex, and usually in a bad way. But with a little patience and understanding, people can really surprise you. His previous film, Phantom Thread was brilliant in portraying this through an unconventional romance (as was Punch-Drunk Love), and he’s done it again, arguably better, with Licorice Pizza. Though the film does have two major issues that might give some audiences pause.
The first problem is probably indefensible. While this is a funny movie throughout, there are a handful of scenes depicting Asian caricatures through the mouth of John Michael Higgins (the wonderful John Michael Higgins). It’s deeply uncomfortable, and it’s one of those jokes that doesn’t make much sense if you ask the simple question, “Well, what is the joke?” Perhaps PTA finds it hilarious to point out how utterly offensive this man is without appearing to realize it, but if that’s the case, it’s not funny, or at the very least it’s not funny enough to justify inclusion. It’s an unforced error in a film that otherwise lands almost all of its other punchlines.
The second issue is one that I’m still chewing on and lean more favorably. And that’s the central concept of a romance between a 15-year-old and a 25-year-old. On paper, it looks bad, and I’ve gone back and forth multiple times on what to make of PTA’s logic with this as the heartbeat of his story.
To be clear, the entire film is built upon the immediate chemistry between Alana and Gary, but the problem is the age difference, at least at first. And as they move on to other romantic prospects, they can’t quite quit each other and are unable to process what to do about this unspoken jealousy. They go together about as well as licorice and pizza, nevertheless they want to be licorice pizza, you get it.
You could say that if the genders were reversed, the film would be immediately rejected out of hand and for good reason. But the genders aren’t reversed, and I think there’s something compelling here about the power imbalance between an adult and a teenager, both of them on the fringes of their respective age groups. Even though Alana is older, she works for Gary’s company, and the film even jokes about how his mother works for him as well if you want to throw in an Oedipus complex.
So it’s almost like PTA is trying to point out the absurdity of a larger-than-life, teenage boy coming of age at the same time and in the same way as a 25-year-old woman, both of them completely different in their approaches to life and love, yet still fully entranced by the other. It’s audacious, it’s risky, it’s misbehavior, it’s PTA.
I imagine most people won’t even care about this age difference because the actors are that good, which is truly amazing considering this is their first film. A lot can be said about Hoffman’s persona as an overconfident showman who knows exactly when to reveal the cracks of his facade at just the right time—let it be said that PTA continues to be a master at directing his actors, regardless of whether or not you like the overall film. With Haim, you have a character we’ve perhaps seen in countless other films before: the self-assured woman who can never seem to catch a break but tries anyway. Yet she plays it so close to her heart, like you’re seeing her instead of the performance. Watching these two is like watching a movie for the first time.
And that’s really what Licorice Pizza does best. Despite being over two hours, it flies by because it immediately whisks you into a dream state you don’t want to wake up from. You can surely come out of it with hours of conversation and dissection over what was good, what was bad, what was genius, what was juvenile, but the very existence of it is the best thing about it, and the flaws might even be the point.
Needless to say, I fell in love with Licorice Pizza against my better judgement, and like with most of PTA’s films, I imagine repeated viewings will be even more rewarding, because his films always are in that respect. Just when you think PTA has run out of ingredients, he surprises us with something entirely new and impossible to forget.
- This looks like a movie that was made with a $40 million budget, but also it doesn’t. On that note, PTA has a co-cinematographer credit, which I believe he usually doesn’t get in other films, even when it’s rumored he did a lot of it himself. For this one, he worked with Michael Bauman, and they truly brought 70s LA to life in a way that wasn’t just authentic, but very much its own living, breathing world with its own rules and design language.
- I avoided talking about a lot of the side characters, because I’d hate to rob the surprise. Needless to say, everyone in this is brilliant and makes an instant impression, though I want to specifically call out some of the younger actors who pal around with Gary.
- Loved the throwback credits sequence they did for this. Particularly in how they give almost every single character a warm shootout.
- The score by Jonny Greenwood is magnificent and purposefully understated, though less bombastic and notable as Phantom Thread and There Will Be Blood. I honestly prefer the score Greenwood did for Spencer, but there’s nothing to complain about, here.
Licorice Pizza opens in select theaters on November 26 through United Artists. It then goes wide on December 25.
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