Licorice Pizza is an eccentric, shapeless masterpiece. It follows Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a precocious, entrepreneurial teenager, as he hustles his way through the San Fernando Valley, circa 1973. As Gary bounces from one quirky, cockeyed ambition to the next, the plot bounces with him, like a balloon on a string. The only through line is his burgeoning relationship with Alana (Alana Haim), a freewheeling twenty-something who slowly realizes she occupies the same strange groove in life that he does.
As coming-of-age heroes go, Gary represents a unique entity: He’s a savvy, well-spoken huckster, with an unusual facade of self-assuredness. We meet Gary just as he meets Alana. In one of his infamous unbroken takes, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has the two of them engage in an awkward, endearing banter that will eventually become their love language. Ultimately, she can’t help but be charmed by how obliviously off-the-wall he is. Gary is an unusual kid, and unpredictable things tend to happen around him. For a free spirit like Alana, this proves to be an irresistible prospect.
Gary begins the film as a small-time actor. He freely spits out his résumé of bit parts in B-movies to anyone who will listen. Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), Gary’s mouse-meek mother, serves as his dutiful manager and partner-in-crime. When she can’t accompany him on a New York press tour, Alana gets pressed into service as chaperone. On this trip, Alana is won over by Gary’s guilelessness, and sidles into a permanent role as his best friend and confidante. Naturally, Gary pines for a romantic relationship, but this arrangement will do–for now.
For the remainder of the film, Gary builds an entourage of enterprising school kids, and they embark on a series of kooky business schemes: Alana and Gary open a storefront hawking waterbeds, an adventure that leads them to the Pizza‘s standout sequence, in which the gang interacts with a preening, coked-up producer named Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper). In real life, Peters is a larger-than-life figure who has achieved varying degrees of success and controversy in Hollywood. (He notoriously hired Kevin Smith to reboot the Superman franchise in the 90s, only to haze him with outlandish ideas for the character. YouTube Smith’s commentary on the subject and you won’t be disappointed.) Anderson writes Peters as an ill-tempered, oversexed monster who terrorizes the group as they install his waterbed. Cooper clearly has a blast, and he damn near walks off with the entire film.
Remarkably, Haim and Hoffman both make their debuts in Licorice Pizza. Both have some kind of history with performance: She and her two sisters form the indie band Haim. (In a wild bit of casting, those sisters appear in this film, as Alana’s sisters.) Hoffman is the son of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the redoubtable character actor who built a fair chunk of his reputation in some of Anderson’s finest films. Both deliver relaxed performances, built around unforced chemistry and exquisite comic timing. Haim, in particular, has a knack for flame-throwing sarcasm that fits the character perfectly. Don’t be surprised if Pizza is only the beginning for both as actors.
As with other Anderson flicks, much of Pizza‘s joy lies on its periphery. Sean Penn pops up for an extended sequence, playing a fragrant, sauced-up hybrid of William Holden and Steve McQueen. Tom Waits also staggers into this scene, growling his lines with the texture of a million busted marbles. Also hilarious: Christine Ebersole smokes and swears her way through a cameo as a craggy Lucille Ball knock-off, and Harriet Sansom Harris absolutely kills as Gary’s pleasantly odious agent.
It’s clear from everyone involved that Licorice Pizza was a labor of love. Anderson based his script on growing up in the Valley, and the entire film vibrates with waves of nostalgia and joy. He faithfully recreates actual locations, such as the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant, and the hideously gauche mansion Jon Peters once shared with Barbra Streisand. Also, Anderson and co-cinematographer Michael Bauman deploy old-school 35mm film to capture the cinematic texture of the era. Beyond this meticulous attention to period detail, Anderson successfully bottles the innocence of a likable kid finding his way in the world. After all, even Gary’s get-rich-quick schemes spring from the naïveté of a teenager.
Some viewers might complain that Licorice Pizza meanders, or that it’s a bunch of cute vignettes without real substance. I would counter that the film simply mirrors the untethered magic of its protagonist. Gary may be clever and talented, but he’s also guided by unfocused ambition: When an idea strikes, he just throws up a sail and heads with the wind. Much of the film’s joy comes from watching where this journey will take him, and who he’ll meet along the way. Licorice Pizza stands tall as one of 2021’s finest films.
134 minutes. R. Available on Demand.