You know how to make a romcom, don’t you? You take a couple who obviously should be together, and then you keep them apart right until the end, by whatever means necessary. Missed opportunities, misunderstandings. The world’s general obstructiveness. It’s simple but it works, whatever other weight you bring to the story. You can’t help investing. Just look at Sally Rooney’s novels.
Licorice Pizza is the surprising new film from Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of that terminally extreme masterpiece There Will Be Blood (2007), and subsequently of The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014), and Phantom Thread (2017). These are highly wrought, rewarding but tough movies – all of them I enjoyed much more second time around. Licorice Pizza, in contrast, is immediate pleasure.
It’s set in the prelapsarian, analogue early Seventies in the San Fernando Valley, where Anderson himself grew up – and it’s the story of the eccentric relationship that develops between pudgy chancer Gary Valentine, 15, and sassy Alana Kane, 25. They meet when she comes to his high school for yearbook picture day, working as a photographer’s assistant – and he’s straight away alongside her, walking, talking. The film has lovely movement throughout.
Chatting her up, he’s unstoppable, even though she tells him he’s about 12 and she can be his friend but not his girlfriend. “So, Alana, what are your plans? What does your future look like?” he asks. She doesn’t have an answer, whereas he already knows he’s a showman. On their first non-date he tells her: “I’m not going to forget you, just like you’re not going to forget me.”
Having previously elicited dominant performances from big names, notably Daniel Day-Lewis, Anderson here has flipped the other way entirely, choosing unknown debut actors for his leads. Gary is played by Cooper Hoffman, the teenage son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman – and he’s captivating, full of chutzpah and with such a good, imperfect, real face. In The Many Saints of Newark, casting Michael Gandolfini in his father’s actual role in playing the young Tony Soprano was much too close to the knuckle. But, despite being a physical ringer, the ebullient Cooper Hoffman is far from the tormented loser his father excelled in projecting for Anderson.
[see also: Steven Spielberg’s sunny take on West Side Story]
Alana is played by the musician Alana Haim – and her sisters by the sisters in her band, Haim, and their parents by their parents too, her dad fabulously irascible. She’s brilliantly brave and uncertain, fierce and convincingly bad-tempered.
Anderson’s work in the past has repeatedly surveyed the entire tragic arcs of protagonists who fulfil their difficult destinies and destroy themselves in the process. Licorice Pizza is about not knowing yet which way to go, all the possibilities of the future still there: nothing lost, no harm absorbed, not yet.
The film skitters around the film industry. Alana accompanies Gary to New York as a chaperone for his ambitions as a child actor – but he falls foul of a fabulously bad-tempered Lucille Ball lookalike (Christine Ebersole). Coached by Gary, Alana auditions to be an actor too, before a monstrous agent (Harriet Sansom Harris). Ever on the make, Gary sets up a business selling hideous waterbeds and, despite the age difference, Alana becomes his employee there.
As they racket around, they encounter a series of Hollywood grotesques, all cameos from big names. Sean Penn plays a gravel-voiced veteran actor, Jack Holden, who tries to seduce Alana and then runs into an even crazier pal, Rex Blau, a swaggering mogul stunningly played by Tom Waits, who talks him into performing a daft motorcycle stunt there and then. Bradley Cooper is extraordinary as perverted producer, celebrity hairdresser, Barbra Streisand boyfriend and waterbed purchaser Jon Peters. He tells Gary: “You know how much tail I get? All of it. It’s all mine.” And then hits on Alana.
Harm looms but never arrives. There’s always a feeling that a smash-up or a lurking madman might be around the corner. But Licorice Pizza is joyfully harmless, and perhaps some kind of response to the pretentions of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. It’s so deliciously loose and easy, running along to a great soundtrack (Licorice Pizza, ie LP, was the name of a vinyl record chain in LA back in the day). A tonic for the dark days. Paul Thomas Anderson-lite? The most instantly delectable film of one of our best directors, anyway.
This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance