Licorice Pizza is a “what I did on my summer vacation” chronology of Gary (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana (Alana Haim), two young people who are clearly meant for each other, with only their pride and vanity getting in the way. Set in San Fernando Valley, California in the early Seventies, the movie features a production design with an attention to period detail unseen since…2019’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. That’s right, if you still have an appetite for ugly fashions and interiors featuring shades of brown and orange, here you go. The movie does feature an impressive collection of deep tracks that will make anyone who grew up on album-oriented rock nod approvingly.
The story focuses on Gary, a (very) husky fifteen year-old and child actor, and his dogged pursuit of Alana, his twenty-five year-old former baby-sitter. After a disastrous appearance on a New York variety show effectively kills his acting career, Gary settles on other ways to impress the woman of his dreams. He first sets up a small business selling waterbeds, which unfortunately gets zapped by the oil crisis. Since Alana is keen on becoming an actor, Gary leverages his connections to get her foot in the door. Unfortunately, Alana’s foray into Hollywood results in thudding disappointment, and her flyover in politics as a campaign volunteer quickly becomes a dead end.
Through it all, Gary and Alana clearly are better suited to take on the adult world as a team, but are curiously dead-set on trying to convince themselves they don’t need each other’s help. If only they would get out of each other’s way and admit the obvious, that they are destined to be together. Until then, Licorice Pizza is about settling for what may not be your ideal outcome, or as Stephen Stills put it, love the one you’re with. Gary needs to accept that Alana will probably always see him as a kid and may never ultimately respect him, no matter how many businesses he starts. Alana, on the other hand, needs to accept that Gary is her best (and only) romantic prospect. (That the movie forces Alana to settle on Gary borders on misanthropy.)
Haim and Hoffman have their moments in the movie, but their lack of acting experience was hard for me to ignore. While Haim acquits herself better than Hoffman, I found their performances to be awkward and clumsy. I’m surprised director Paul Thomas Anderson (a.k.a. PTA) cast them as the leads, given how his movies typically feature top-level acting. When the real actors show up (Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Harriet Sansom Harris), the limited range of Hoffman and Haim becomes much more noticeable.
Acting aside, the plot is filled with so many lapses in logic that rational thinking people (like myself) will be frustrated to no end. For example, how is a fifteen year-old able to startup not one but two businesses? Or, why would legendary producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) let a bunch of kids install a waterbed in his mansion? Would William Holden (Sean Penn) really completely forget about a woman riding on the back of his motorcycle? When I actively put my brain on hold and accepted the movie as pure fantasy, I was able to appreciate it for what it is: a wish-fulfillment daydream by a horny teenager lusting after his babysitter. Licorice Pizza is, ultimately, an amusing trifle, a description I Never thought I’d use for a PTA movie. I’m completely ambivalent about this movie, unable to recommend or advise against seeing it. Toss-up.
If you’re interested in my longer analysis of this movie, click here.