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Licorice Pizza (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023


Starring Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Skyler Gisondo, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, John Michael Higgins, Christine Ebersole, Harriet Sansom Harris, Ryan Heffington, Nate Mann, Joseph Cross, George DiCaprio, Ray Chase, Emma Dumont, Maya Rudolph, John C. Reilly, Dan Chariton, Este Haim, Danielle Haim, Moti Haim and Donna Haim.

Screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Distributed by United Artists Releasing. 133 minutes. Rated R.

Paul Thomas Anderson returns to his Boogie Nights 70s milieu for the alternately charming and frankly kinda weird Licorice Pizza.

Then again, Anderson has always been a bit of a problematic director for me, although I appreciate the craft, the only one of his movies that I totally liked was the aforementioned Boogie Nights. However, he has had a string of critically acclaimed movies that left me rather cold – Magnolia (which I actually liked until the last 15 minutes), Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice and now, I guess, Licorice Pizza.

Well, perhaps Licorice Pizza doesn’t belong in that company. I actually really liked lots of parts of the movie, although I do think lots of other parts are sort of odd. The pacing is all over the map, and the storyline doesn’t make much sense, but as a child of the 1970s, I do recognize lots of the references being made here and they are a lot of fun. Licorice Pizza deserves big praise just for using a poster of the 1973 film The Last of Sheila as a prop.

I’m just not sure exactly what Anderson is trying to get at with this story. Even the title of the film is a bit of a fake out. I assumed from the title it would be about the music industry. (Licorice Pizza was the name of a chain of record stores in Los Angeles in the 1970s and in a broader context was a nickname for vinyl LPs.) The fact that the star of the film, Alana Haim, is a musician (from the sister group Haim) and not an actress also fed that thought. (In a nice touch, not only do Alana’s sisters play her sisters in the film, but her parents play their parents as well.)

While Licorice Pizza is nearly wall-to-wall 1970s music (most of it great), it is not specifically about music. It’s more about show business and hustling in LA during the 1970s energy crisis. It is similar to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in the fact that many old Hollywood characters pop up for strange sequences including William Holden (renamed Jack Holden in the movie), producer Jon Peters, Lucille Ball (renamed Lucy Doolittle here), agent Mary Grady, restauranteur Jerry Frick and actor Fred Gwynne. And like Once Upon a Time…, it doesn’t quite work as well as you’d hope.

I guess this show biz ambiance is due to the fact that the male lead – Gary Valentine – was based on the life of former child actor (and waterbed salesman) turned film producer Gary Goetzman. Valentine is well-played by another first-time film actor, Cooper Hoffman – son of the late Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who worked with Anderson in Boogie Nights, Magnolia and The Master.

Gary runs across Alana Kane (played by Haim) when she’s working for the photographer when he’s getting his high school photos taken. Alana is at a bit of a crossroads in her life, taking lots of dead-end jobs and angry at the world. However, the charming young actor is immediately taken by her and tries to ask her out. Alana isn’t interested in him romantically, but she enjoys talking with him and soon they are constantly spending time together. Gary is a real go-getter for a high school kid, so he talks her into joining him on acting gigs, in opening the first waterbed store in the region and eventually opening a penny arcade.

Gary never loses his attraction to Alana, although he recognizes it is unrequited and starts to see other girls. Alana seeing him with other girls makes her have a reaction that surprises even her – suddenly she’s a bit jealous and may be interested after all. But Gary seems to have moved on, so she gets involved in doomed relationships with an older actor and a budding politician. However, the two of them are often together, keeping their eyes on each other, but afraid to admit their feelings.

I guess I should address the elephant in the room, at least for me. Nobody else seems to be bothered by the fact that a sorta romance between a 25-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy feels kind of creepy. I mean, yes, less creepy than if it were the other way around, but still I spent the entire movie wondering why this woman – neurotic though she may be – was spending all of her time with a bunch of young teens. And when she wasn’t with them, she was often throwing herself at older men.

I get that she was sort of lost and had low self-esteem, but still….

Yes, I get it was sort of fantasy fulfillment told from the perspective of the boy as a grown man. And yes, I get that it was based on an idealized version of a true story. It still felt a little hinky to me, though. Paging Mary Kay Letourneau….

However, if you can look past that – and most people seem to be – Licorice Pizza has lots to offer.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: December 23, 2021.


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