PT Anderson’s New Movie “Licorice Pizza” Takes Us Back In Time

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s new coming of age piece, Licorice Pizza, is a great example of how word-of-mouth on social media can be just as misleading as studio marketing. While the trailers and ads lead you to believe it’s another nostalgic period piece a la Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000), the comments on Twitter and YouTube would make you think it’s the second coming of Mike Nichols’ classic satire The Graduate (1967).


Once you actually watch the film though, you’ll discover it’s a little of the former, a minuscule of the latter, as well as a tiny bit of Anderson’s own previous masterpiece Boogie Nights (1997). Growing to be one of the most polarizing movies to end 2021, Licorice Pizza takes us to the time and place of PTA’s own upbringing: California’s San Fernando Valley in the 1970s.

Set between Encino and Sherman Oaks in 1973, 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a smart-aleck local teen actor who moonlights as an amateur entrepreneur and thinks he’s a smooth talker. Twenty-five-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) is working odd jobs while unhappily still living at home with her family and going on disappointing dates. The two meet by chance while Alana is working the photo sessions for Gary’s school yearbook and form a strange friendship mainly instigated by Gary. Things grow so fast between them Alana ends up roped into co-managing a waterbed company Gary runs.

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Licorice Pizza is a family affair of sorts, with Haim’s own parents and sisters playing her character’s relatives, including ‘Haim’ bandmates Danielle and Este. Hoffman’s own mother, Mimi O’Donnell, makes a brief appearance, and Anderson’s companion Maya Rudolph, along with some of their children, appear on screen. Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, John C. Reilly, and Christine Ebersole have cameo appearances inspired by real Hollywood legends like William Holden and Lucille Ball as well. 

Licorice Pizza has a weird, but intriguing, mix of a filmmaker living out his boyhood fantasy as well as showing a cautionary tale of idolizing the past. Haim’s fictionalized Alana is aware of how quickly inappropriate her time with Hoffman’s Gary could become if it progresses. Gary is also portrayed as very much a minor with naïve confidence and delusions. The way this movie is being discussed on the Internet, I was expecting there to be some uncomfortable romance and sex scenes between the two leads; but fortunately, there aren’t. There’s no nudity, only one single kiss and the R rating is primarily for constant foul language.

For the most part, Licorice Pizza warrants the Almost Famous and Boogie Nights comparisons. And while it doesn’t feel as wholesome as the earlier hits (especially Famous), Anderson’s latest effort does have its own charm. Despite being a middle-aged man, the writer-director successfully captures what it’s like to be a young woman who feels too old to spend all day having fun, yet too young to be serious with an invested career. I imagine parts of Gary are a tad of a self-insert on PTA’s part, as well as influenced by real child actors of the time period, such as Anderson’s friend Gary Goetzman.

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Haim and Hoffman both make stellar acting debuts with plenty of potential for future performances if they desire to, and the supporting cast are great as usual with PTA films.

Though enjoyable, there are still a couple of flaws to be found. One is a character played by John Michael Higgins, who is a casually offensive restaurant owner appropriating Japanese culture written as edgy comic relief. I have to agree with people complaining that his presence doesn’t really add anything to the story and just feels like Anderson saying, “I can get away with this because it’s set in the past.”

Trying not to veer into spoilers too much, but I also think the ending really would have benefitted without the final two minutes. After spending two hours showing how sleazy and nonchalant older men behave with Alana, and even featuring a crass comment from one of Alana’s friends about Gary, the ending feels out of place and almost laughably unrealistic. Another surprising aspect is that the legendary SoCal record store chain, Licorice Pizza, isn’t actually featured in the movie.

Yet I would say the performances, direction, aesthetics and a nice oldies/classic rock heavy soundtrack make Licorice Pizza worth viewing for film and ‘70s lovers.


Do you have any interest in seeing Licorice Pizza? Do mid-century period pieces still seem fresh to you? Let us know in the comments!

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