Licorice Pizza Review: Fun As Hell, Even If Slightly Underwhelming

Licorice Pizza Review: Fun As Hell, Even If Slightly Underwhelming

Rating: 3.5/5 

Following the sumptuously crafted fashion drama Phantom Thread (2017), Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the silver screen with Licorice Pizza; a wistful, nostalgic, and heartfelt coming-of-age tale, set against the bustling backdrop of California’s San Fernando Valley in the 70s. 

Fluctuating from a poignant account of self-discovery to a divisive romantic comedy, Anderson flirts with every conceivable genre, padding his little film with so much heart and substance, it elicits at least a sincere smile of admiration. 

It’s a film which immediately brings to mind Tarantino’s Once Upon Time In Hollywood (2019), a nostalgia-soaked ode to the glory of old-school Hollywood. Almost functioning as a companion piece to Tarantino’s full-blown Tinseltown tribute, Licorice Pizza similarly pursues a nostalgic pathway, capturing a dizzying, dreamy tale of teenagers navigating love and life in the 70s.

The film opens with a vivacious 15-year-old high school student, Gary Valentine (a delightful Cooper Hoffman), desperately trying to woo a young woman, Alana Kane (a perfect Alana Haim), who’s a clearly jaded yearbook photographer at his school, and also 10 years his senior. The high-schooler, enamoured by Alana, impulsively asks her out to dinner, and even hilariously begins spewing out his acting credentials when she asks him how he plans to pay. It’s such a whimsically constructed scene, echoing both simplicity and an endearing charm in the vein of Anderson’s brilliant 2002 romcom Punch Drunk Love. Once Anderson sets his two central lovers in stone, the plot of Licorice Pizza is progressively set in motion, dragging our characters on a whirlwind of utterly bizarre and hysterical plot points. 

While one presumes the film would amplify its strange narrative threads and implode climatically in traditional PTA fashion, Licorice Pizza honestly never does. It’s easily Anderson’s most leniently crafted and thoroughly relaxed film. It never strikes the explosive vein of There Will Be Blood nor does it achieve the startling dramatic twists Phantom Thread was laced with. It’s a quality which makes the film both glorious and disappointing at once.

Licorice Pizza Review: Fun As Hell, Even If Slightly Underwhelming
Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza. (Credits: Universal Pictures/MGM)

With his keen reflective eye, Anderson swiftly explores the polarizing worlds of our leads, perhaps not justifying the staggering age gap between them, but only mildly offering an insight. Gary is a wide-eyed, overly ambitious teenage “hustler”, brimming with eccentric business ideas and far-reaching dreams. He’s quick, boisterous, and startingly involved in the community for someone his tender age. It provides a sharp contrast against Alana, a practically “old enough to marry and explore” adult stuck in arrested development at the behest of her controlling Jewish family (superbly played by Alana Haim’s own parents and sisters). 

It’s with this subtle juxtaposition of two lives, how one can perhaps see why Alana is drawn to this baby-faced teenager with the eyes of a dreamer. As it is made blatantly clear on numerous occasions, Alana herself is caught at career crosswords and is in a romantic limbo. So her attraction to Gary’s assertive and assured persona does seem understandable to some degree. 

It's this crucial bedrock of their relationship which elucidates plenty of smaller moments in the film, deepening your admiration for how superbly Anderson unravels even the simplest romances. We follow Gary’s tumultuous life as he initiates and abandons business ventures, so terribly eager to make his mark in big, bright California, while also viewing how Alana weaves in and out of the young boy’s unbridled, little life. Anderson guides us on this turbulent journey, flicking an excellent Sean Penn, a hysterical Bradley Cooper, and even a phenomenally restrained Benny Safdie our way. 

But despite Anderson chasing to replicate the success of his uproariously wild earlier works (Magnolia and Boogie Nights), Licorice Pizza never lights up or bursts with ingenuity the way those films did. For a film crackling with so much potential, Anderson ties himself down with a middling, meandering narrative, which darts from one strange plot point to another irrelevant one. 

It’s the oscillating structure which eventually wears one down, as the film simply gathers and disposes of its own momentum in frustrating fashion. Sure, Sean Penn is simply superb and Bradley Cooper is a certified show-stealer, but both actors struggle to thrive in Anderson’s muddled vision of the film, awkwardly placed in random scenes which culminate in nearly nothing at all. Yes, it does lend us tidbits of insight and further propels the nefariously complex relationship of Gary and Alana, but one can’t help feeling as though both performers were severely underutilized. 

As for the others, Cooper Hoffman is exceptional, stepping right into the golden shoes of his late father, the extraordinary Philip Seymour Hoffman. The young star brings just the teenage eccentricity, indecisiveness, and energy the film so demands. As for Benny Safdie, Anderson assigns him another minuscule subplot, and yet the actor treads with unfaltering flair. A special mention for Harriet Sansom Harris, who’s an unquestionably exquisite performer, even as she occupies the scene for a couple of minutes. 

But it’s the sensational Alana Haim, who glues the film together and truly breathes life into it with her comedic romp and zest. Fluctuating between moods, jealousies, and romantic longings, Haim is a show-stealer through and through. 

Anderson, in conjunction with cinematographer Michael Bauman, crafts a stunningly dreamy portrait of teenagerhood and navigating life in the 70s. The fuzzy texture and dream-like quality is one of the innumerable qualities which elevates Licorice Pizza. Although one does feel a sense of alienation from its central characters, who dabble in everything from waterbed politics to steep gas prices,  it’s these irksome subplots which scatters the film and detracts from its leading pair and their blossoming romance. 

But despite whatever shortcomings it may possess, Licorice Pizza lands one hell of an ending. It’s a truly beautiful and earned sense of romance, with a charming score by Jonny Greenwood, and some splendid performances. 

It might be far from perfect, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s “underwhelming” still towers over the rest; a delightful, relaxed time at the movies. 

Author Biographical Note: The author is currently pursuing a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Jai Hind College, Mumbai. He is currently working for Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue in the capacity of an intern.

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