Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is a hang-out movie. It is a movie that rides the same vibe as movies like Dazed and Confused and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. A basically plotless odyssey through a time and place where things happen, but nothing super significant. This isn’t about what happens as much as it is about who it happens to. It is one of the very best movies of the year.
It is school picture day at a San Fernando Valley high school in 1973. Alana (Alana Haim), an aimless twenty-five-year-old working for the picture-taking company, walks through the hallways offering the students a comb and mirror for final touchups before their pictures. One student, Gary Valentine, (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman), a child actor full of blind confidence, takes Alana up on her offer and begins to flirt with her. Though put off initially, Alana can’t stave off Gary’s charm and confidence. Later that evening, Alana meets Gary at his favorite restaurant and they share a couple of Cokes.
From there, we watch Alana, Gary, and Gary’s friends hang out and go on a series of adventures, most notably Gary starting a decently successful waterbed company and Alana joining a local mayoral campaign. But we also see smaller moments, like Gary being falsely arrested or an encounter with Hollywood super-producer Jon Peter’s (Bradley Cooper, a lightning rod of energy and charisma).
The brilliance of Anderson’s direction is that he makes us feel like we are one of Gary’s friends and allows us to go on this wondrous journey with Gary and Alana. We have a front-row seat to everything that happens and it feels like it is happening to us. We sit on the plane with Alana and Gary as they go to New York for one of Gary’s shows. We sit in the waterbed delivery truck as Gary, Alana, and a few others deliver the beds around town. We sit in the campaign office with Alana as she believes she has found purpose in life answering phones for a mayoral candidate. Licorice Pizza is the kind of movie that has you thinking about what the characters’ lives were like before we joined the group and what they will be like after the credits roll. What’s Gary’s next venture? What did he start before the waterbeds? Does Alana break into acting or continue her work in politics? I would love to see Gary and Alana’s story continue, whether together or separate, and hang out with them again.
Anderson fully immerses us in the time and the place of Licorice Pizza, that time and place being the San Fernando Valley in 1973. Anderson’s beautiful set design, costumes, and perfectly placed needle-drops put us in this time and don’t take us out for the entire runtime. This was a time well before I was born and takes place in an area far from where I grew up and where I live, but for this fleeting two hours and thirteen minutes, I felt like I was living in it and that I understood what the atmosphere and attitude were during the time. It’s astounding work from one of the best filmmakers working today.
There has been a lot of talk surrounding the age difference between Gary and Alana because people think that Licorice Pizza is a love story between a twenty-five-year-old and a fifteen-year-old. But it isn’t a love story. It is a story about two lost souls who have found each other at the right moment in their lives. Is that love? I don’t think so. For Alana, she’s twenty-five years old and goes from dead-end job to dead-end job while living at home with her parents, seemingly with no direction. Gary, a moderately successful child actor, is overly confident and always the leader. He runs a marketing agency with his mother but is always looking for the next big thing, hence starting the waterbed business. He thinks he acts older than he is, but his immaturity comes from his nativity and jealousy. For Alana, Gary’s confidence is infectious and he seems like he has it all together, so partnering with him might give her some guidance in life, though she sees his faults immaturity. For Gary, he’s found a partner in crime. Someone who supports his wild ideas and will be by his side making cold calls or pitching ads. Haim and Hoffman, in two of the year’s great breakout performances, have sensational chemistry together. There is a spark between the two and they vibe so well together. But they also bicker and fight constantly and also have two different ideas of how they should be living their lives. Alana even comments that she thinks it is weird that she hangs out with Gary and her friends. We aren’t watching two characters fall in love, we are watching a fleeting moment between two lost people who have found each other.
I’ve seen over two hundred movies in 2021 and none have given me the electric feeling that Licorice Pizza gave me. This is an expertly written, masterfully made movie that I want to revisit over and over again. It’s the kind of movie you can catch halfway through and just hang out to it or start it from the beginning and bask in its greatness. Licorice Pizza is a truly special film and one of the absolute best films of 2021, if not the best.
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