A film that comes together like toothpaste and orange juice.
Written by: Eric Seitz
Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film, the absurdly named “Licorice Pizza,” follows the lives of two individuals in the San Fernando Valley during the 1970s. Alana Haim (of the band HAIM) and Cooper Hoffman (son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) each make their film debut in this story of an aimless 28-year-old photography assistant (Haim) and her relationship with an ambitious 15-year-old boy (Hoffman). The film spends most of its runtime teasing the audience with the intriguing yet somewhat unsettling prospect that these two people might end the movie in each other’s arms.
While a traditional film is composed of three acts, “Licorice Pizza” doesn’t seem to know where to stop — to the point that the end of the movie doesn’t really feel like the end, but simply when they decided to stop filming.
“Licorice Pizza” is as perplexing as its name suggests. At one moment, it paints highly unconventional yet endlessly believable main characters, and the next moment, it expects viewers to uncomfortably laugh at a character’s racist actions. While the film benefits from the incredible premise director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson has built, the plot beats feel grafted onto one another, rather than forming a full, coherent storyline. While a traditional film is composed of three acts, “Licorice Pizza” doesn’t seem to know where to stop — to the point that the end of the movie doesn’t really feel like the end, but simply when they decided to stop filming. Rather than the film having a distinctive beginning, middle and end, it presents itself as a series of vignette-like scenarios that the two main characters find themselves in.
The star of the show is, ironically, the stars of the show — Haim and Hoffman. At 18 years old, Hoffman delivers a performance with the nuance highly necessary for the character Gary Valentine. His acting and line delivery paints the 15-year-old as at once mature-beyond-years and eye-rollingly childish. The slightly misogynistic remarks he directs toward costar Haim feel appropriate for the social landscape of the time, but they strip his character of the emotional connection that he could have to the audience.
The term “licorice pizza” evokes an uneasy feeling — one similar to how people feel about the word “moist.”
Haim’s character Alana (yes, she’s eponymously named) is the film’s emotional core — much thanks to the performance of Haim herself. While Hoffman’s Gary is mature beyond his years in many ways, Haim’s Alana is notably immature for her age; when the film begins, she is coming to the realization that maybe it’s okay that she isn’t ready to be done being a kid. If the film has a plot arc at all (which it kind of doesn’t), it’s the story of Alana realizing she’s immature enough to find romantic interest in a 15-year-old, then deciding she wants to grow up, then attempting to find her place in the world, and…well, I won’t spoil the ending. Alana shines in that her critical flaws are what make her so relatable — everyone has felt at some point like they are too old to be where they are in life.
Paul Thomas Anderson based many of the events in the film on the real life of his friend Gary Goetzman — particularly the events that relate to Hoffman’s character. Knowing this begins to give context to some of the unusual story choices made later in the film. As the film reaches the hour-and-a-half mark, it nears its logical conclusion. However, the runtime goes far beyond that point, tacking on seemingly disparate events for the sake of jamming true-story elements into an already all-over-the-place narrative. Minute 90 to minute 120 drudge on unnecessarily like the last 60 seconds of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” — they add nothing of consequence. In fact, the film’s charm comes in the fact that, effectively, none of it matters — it is a microscopic perspective of two nobodies in 1970s California. So extending the runtime for the sake of “And this part was based on real events too!” ends up detracting from the story’s beautiful nothingness.
“Licorice Pizza” engages its audience right out of the gate, thanks to stellar performances by Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim.
The term “licorice pizza” evokes an uneasy feeling — one similar to how people feel about the word “moist.” This choice in title (which, by the way, has no plot relevance) stems from the fact that audiences aren’t meant to actually feel that great about the idea of a 28-year-old and a 15-year-old engaging in a romantic relationship. The film does everything in its power to convince viewers that “it’s not like that,” but the real-world social overtones are inescapable; and the film’s insistence that this relationship is okay makes its entire premise feel just a little bit icky. “Licorice Pizza” obviously does not set out to confront serious topics like this, but to ignore it entirely makes the writing team appear negligent.
The film basks in nostalgia that firmly places it in the 1970s California social scene. From period-accurate filming techniques to adhering to the fact that no one in the San Fernando valley regularly wore makeup in the 70s, I began to feel nostalgia for a time that existed 30 years before I was born. Further, it plucks moments from history like the oil crisis, the waterbed craze and the ban of pinball machines, exploring how the characters would react to those events.
“Licorice Pizza” engages its audience right out of the gate, thanks to stellar performances by Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim. While it stumbles with plot development, message and pacing, watching its two stars play off of each other and command the audience’s attention through truly heartfelt performances makes the film both moving and memorable.