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Licorice Pizza focuses on the parallel journeys of fifteen year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman), a child actor, and Alana (Alana Haim), his twenty-something former babysitter. They start out together, with him hound-dogging Alana for her attention and (possible) affection. Gary’s modest level of success has given him an outsized amount of confidence, to the point where his advances are comical. Even still, Alana plays along, an admission that she has nothing going on in her life outside of being a photographer’s assistant.
In the first of the movie’s many flights of fancy, Gary has Alana be his chaperone on a flight to New York, where he has a television appearance. Once there, Gary’s attempts to impress Alana prove to be disastrous, effectively ending his acting career. (Jokes about beavers never go over well with a family audience.) Back home, Gary continues on his quest to win Alana’s heart by turning himself into a businessman. He opens a waterbed store that does well until it is crushed by the oil crisis. Before that happens, Gary lands the famous (and notorious) movie producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) as a customer. The scenes involving the waterbed delivery to Peters’ mansion are easily the movie’s highlights. Upon arrival, a coke-fueled Peters threatens Gary, to the point where it’s hard to tell where Peters is joking or seriously deranged. This leads to Gary sabotaging the installation, but being forced to deal with Peters again when he runs out of gas. After Gary exacts revenge on Peters’ abandoned car, the delivery truck promptly runs out of gas before they can flee. This leads to the movie’s showpiece sequence, where Alana drives the truck backwards down the hilly roads to escape.
Gary also leverages his connections in “the biz” to help Alana get her foot into the door as an actor. This results in a particularly unsettling meeting with a creepy casting agent (Harriet Sansom Harris) who’s fixated on Alana’s Jewish nose. Alana soon introduced to leathery lothario (and famous actor) William Holden (Sean Penn) and weirdo film director Rex Blau (Tom Waits, doing his best Nick Nolte impersonation). All of these introductions prove to be dead ends, so Alana becomes a campaign volunteer for closeted mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). Alana sees the handsome Wachs as a potential husband, but those hopes are quickly dashed over an incredibly uncomfortable dinner between Wachs and his boyfriend.
While Alana courts Hollywood and dabbles in politics, Gary realizes that Alana is just a tease and plays the field a bit. This upsets Alana because she wants to be the recipient of Gary’s attention without reciprocating his feelings. The dynamic of the two is an interesting one, filled with equal parts self-loathing and pride. Gary hates himself for trying to win the heart of a girl who doesn’t take him seriously, while Alana refuses to admit that her best (and only) suitor is a fifteen year-old boy. They’re like a pair of magnets that constantly push and pull on each other.
Eventually, Gary decides to play the entrepreneur again and opens his own pinball arcade. In the end, Gary realizes that his success means nothing without Alana by his side. She, in turn, realizes that it’s better to “love the one you’re with” and gives up her search for an adult partner. Just like your typical Hollywood romance, they come to their senses just in time for a happy ending.
Licorice Pizza is an odd movie, its story filled with huge gaps in logic that make the entire story incredibly implausible. (The huge age gap between the two, coupled with Gary not being at the age of consent, were actually the least of the problems I had.) For starters, Gary is able to open two storefront businesses as a fifteen year-old kid. He certainly has the starter capital to do this, but that would be only the first hurdle to clear. He would need to get a license at the very least, among other things.
Both Gary and Alana’s parents are extremely hands-off with their children throughout the movie. Gary’s mom apparently never leaves her office. Alana’s parents seem to play no active role in her life, either. I’m surprised they were completely comfortable with her flying across the country with Gary. Or that her Jewish father would be perfectly fine with his unmarried daughter being gone all hours of the day and night. In many ways, the parent-free world of Gary and Alana came off as a riff on Charlie Brown.
Jon Peters may be vibrating to the tune of many lines of cocaine, but that wouldn’t explain why he’d have no qualms with a bunch of kids installing a waterbed in the million-dollar mansion he shares with Barbara Striesand. Or why his personal assistant wouldn’t keep an eye on the kids, to make sure they don’t screw things up.
Since Gary had no problems opening a retail waterbed store, by the movie’s logic he can quickly open a pinball arcade. But that doesn’t explain why he wouldn’t hire a security guard to protect his investment. (The one guy banging into his machine so forcefully would cause it to tilt, by the way.) At a critical juncture in the plot, he runs out of his arcade in the middle of the night to search for Alana. Love certainly can make you do crazy things, but abandoning the cash-heavy business on its opening night completely unattended was bizarre.
I was also puzzled when Alana told her boyfriend, “If you’re circumcised, you’re Jewish.” Is she really that naive that she, a twenty-five year-old woman, doesn’t understand that circumcision is practiced by both Jews and Gentiles?
Taken together, the plot’s many lapses in logic has me convinced that the story is meant to be taken as pure fantasy. Even though the setting of the movie is reproduced in meticulous detail, the story is nothing more than a summer daydream by a teenaged boy with raging hormones. When I started viewing the movie in that light, I was able to appreciate it more. The movie has a horny-yet-whimsical vibe that carries the story along, to the point where I suspected PTA was high while writing the screenplay. If Licorice Pizza had great acting performances throughout, it might have gotten away with a lazy script. While it does feature several excellent supporting turns by veteran actors, the performances by the leads leaves much to be desired.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s decision to place two non-professional actors in the leading roles may have presented itself as a fun challenge for himself. From the get-go, however, the limited ranges of Hoffman and Haim was readily apparent. Gary and Alana’s awkward attempts at playful banter reminded me of Annie Hall, if it were done by a high school drama club. When the real actors show up, Hoffman and Haim’s amateurish performances are even more noticable.
Licorice Pizza easily features the worst lead acting of the PTA movies I’ve seen. (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood and The Phantom Thread are the others.). The many critical assertions that Haim’s performance was worthy of a Best Actress nomination have me dumbfounded. (I’m guessing people graded her work here on a curve.) Haim is comfortable in front of the camera, a carryover from her musical career. Her performance lacks subtlety though, with every emotion and mannerism exaggerated beyond what it needed to be.
Hoffman, unfortunately, doesn’t have a previous career to draw on. He inherited some of his father’s goofball charm and assured confidence, but his acting is weak. Unlike Haim, who at least tries to affect a range of emotions, Hoffman’s performance is primarily limited to being brash and immature. He doesn’t know how to project from within. When he needs to display his inner thoughts and feelings, he turns into a blank. In ten years, Hoffman and Haim may be decent actors, but as of right now they have a long way to go.
Licorize Pizza also has several glaring tone-deaf moments. There’s a recurring joke with Jerry Frick and how he communicates with his Japanese mail-order wives. For some reason, Frick believes they will understand him if he speaks to them using a voice that mirrors those used in badly dubbed Kung-Fu movies. A white, teenage boy living in the Seventies would certainly find this funny, but in 2021, the joke comes off as racist.
PTA’s films definitely have a misanthropic streak running through them. In this movie, he follows a similar template by making life miserable for Gary and Alana. For Gary, he’s regularly shown as being big enough as the adults in his world. However, none of the adults takes him seriously, even though he has a resume that would make most actors jealous and has started two successful businesses on his own.
PTA is particularly hard on Alana. Even though she’s naturally beautiful, he stacks the deck against her. Every man she thinks she could have a relationship with quickly loses interest. Or, as in the case of mayoral hopeful Wachs, is revealed to be gay. Given how little her parents seem to care about her life, I can only surmise that they’ve given up. At twenty-five, the bloom is off the rose, so to speak. I know that Gary adores her, but the fact that Alana’s only choice for love and happiness is the fifteen year-old boy she used to babysit made me shake my head at her lot in life.
Interestingly enough, it’s the movie’s adults who get to do whatever they want whenever they want, with no fear of consequences. Adults rule Gary and Alana’s world, and they’re pretty much all creeps. Fortunately for us, they’re played by excellent actors. Bradley Cooper has a lot of fun playing the incredibly intense Jon Peters. Sean Penn reminded me how great an actor he can be. As William Holden, he projects the aura of a legendary actor who also happens to be a boozing, and narcissistic letch. Harriet Sansom Harris is brilliant as the evil-eyed talent agent who, try as she might, just can’t look past Alana’s Jewish nose. There are also a few blink-and-you’ll miss them cameos by Maya Rudolff and John C. Reiley.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is beautifully shot. The production design features an obsessively recreated Seventies milieu, to the point where I thought the actors were walking through a theme park named “Seventies: The Experience”. Unfortunately, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood pulled this same stunt just two years ago, and I can only marvel so much at soap dispensers, rotary phones and ugly clothes.
In keeping with the movie’s heavy emphasis on nostalgia, the soundtrack features an impressive collection of deep tracks from the period. I recognized and appreciated many of the songs, including Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”, The Doors’ “Peace Frog” and “Walk Away” by the James Gang. I’m guessing PTA grew up listening to album-oriented rock radio stations like I did. (We’re practically the same age.)
In the end, I felt the same way about Licorice Pizza as I did about Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. I admired the dedication on behalf of the filmmakers to faithfully recreate the time and place of their youth, but both are essentially pastiches that don’t engage at an emotional level. Without an interesting plot or fully-realized character to care about, both movies are the cinematic equivalent of flipping through an album of old photographs. If you’re interested in a movie that is set in California in the Seventies, has oodles of period-specific details but actually has interesting characters and a plot with tangible stakes, check out The Nice Guys (2016). I know Shane Black is no auteur like PTA or Quentin Tarantino, but why his movie garnered no critical recognition is one of life’s mysteries.