Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie
No matter the amount of garbage thrown at young teens, they can hope for something better when they reach adulthood. A time where they can make their own decisions and have a level of control to actually accomplish their dreams. An idea that works incredibly well in theory, but once the time has arrived and nothing seemingly goes to plan, where does that leave you? One of the major questions posed in the meandering but incredibly lively Licorice Pizza.
Seemingly stuck in a place with not many options, Alana (Alana Haim) meets charismatic and ambitious 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman). As the two become friends, Alana gets involved in all of his schemes as she continues in her journey of trying to figure out who she actually wants to be.
When a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie gets released, it means I will run to the theater to watch it no matter what. Those are the rules as the man never makes a bad film and the track record remains clear with what he crafts in Licorice Pizza. A film truly toeing the line in the relationship between this 25 and 15-year-old but pulls it off because of the way it crafts this character of Alana and the conflicting journey she finds herself in. It remains her story with the addition of Gary serving almost as a comfort but also a wake-up call to what she wants to accomplish in life.
Alana first gets seen working a job she obviously hates along with sexually harassing co-workers, which makes her first interaction with Gary incredibly refreshing. Her interactions with other adults only infuriate her because she sees what awaits her. It’s what makes her relationship with Gary something of a comfort for her, as she feeds off his youthful zeal of getting ahead in life through his various schemes and throughout the film she tries to do the same thing herself. This friendship pushes her to reinvent herself on several occasions in order for something to stick whether it be an actor, political volunteer, or business partner. Alana reigns in this relatbality because many 25-year-olds find themselves in the dilemma of being closer to 30 rather than being a kid with life not going exactly as intended.
In typical Paul Thomas Anderson form, these two get into different shenanigans and they very much vary in their wackiness but it all contributes to their development as characters with current events of the 1970s operating as a background as well. From selling water beds to interactions with celebrities, it all turns into such a romp of experiences where they can extract a lesson from each. The best one, without a doubt, comes from the inclusion of John Peters portrayed by Bradley Cooper. Every moment he has on-screen proves to be such a riot as he comes in like a wrecking ball and injects such a tremendous level of humor into the story. From pronouncing Barbra Streisand to pushing someone off a gas nozzle, Cooper brings in a short-lived but incredible few minutes of mayhem into the story.
The beating heart of the film remains the two leads in Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, who in their first roles in features absolutely knock it out of the park. The inclusion of Cooper, whose father, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, famously collaborated with many Anderson films came as such an emotional choice and one that paid extreme dividends. Cooper has such an infectious screen presence with a level of charisma that absolutely pops. A tremendous showing by the young actor but Alana Haim proves to be the standout. She gets tasked with selling this down-on-her-luck character in an endearing manner, while still pointing out the big flaws of her spending far too much time with Gary and his friends. This complicated journey for the character Alana makes for quite the treacherous road and Haim absolutely nails the role. It comes with a level of intentionality of accurately cobbling together the overall vibe of the 1970s with warts and all and these two stick the landing
Undoubtedly, some may be turned off by the line this film walks with the friendship of Alana and Gary. Certainly whenever I explain what the movie is about to anyone, it does feel a bit odd and bordering on the proverbial problematic. It remains a story about Alana trying to figure herself out as an adult by constantly being allured to the undying optimism of being a youthful teenager. She pushes away all advances by Gary, who obviously has a crush on her, and as a character, she continually questions her decisions in the feature. She’s complicated, which makes for a captivating story even if it makes for uncomfortable moments. The best art tends to do that.
A lovely return to a more laid-back version of Paul Thomas Anderson makes Licorice Pizza a lovely and enjoyable little story of great development for its characters. It takes the complications of its story head-on but continues to focus on its two leads as they navigate where they find themselves in life and try to figure out who they want to be. Sure, it meanders at times but it very much matches where Alana finds herself in this segment of her life. Definitely not top-tier Paul Tomas Anderson but still incredibly well made.