Paul Thomas Anderson pays humorous tribute to the 1970s in southern California in this story of a teenage entrepreneur who falls for a clever young woman.
The latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson shows the writer-director returning to a favorite place and time: southern California in the 1970s. Boogie Nights in ’97, and more recently, Inherent Vice in 2014, celebrated that unusual period in humorous, gently satiric ways. The new movie is called Licorice Pizza, and in some ways, it’s Anderson’s most outright comic film.
In his screen debut, Cooper Hoffman plays 15-year-old aspiring actor Gary Valentine, a high school student in the San Fernando Valley in 1973. He’s a goofy red-headed kid, a little overweight, who for some reason has developed amazing self-confidence. He thinks he’s going somewhere, and he’s full of ideas about how to get there. On the day when class pictures are being taken at the school, he sees a young woman, a photographer’s assistant named Alana Kane, played by the similarly named Alana Haim, also in her first film. Gary is immediately love-struck, and decides that Alana is going to be his girlfriend someday, and he quite boldly tells her this. She brushes him off and says she’s 25, too old for him, but this awkward yet assertive girl with a wise guy attitude is secretly flattered by Gary’s devotion. They do become friends, and work together on Gary’s schemes, including one in which he tries to get in on the recent waterbed craze. But the friendship is founded on her stubborn insistence, and eventually his as well, that they’re not really a couple at all.
Now, one of the characteristics of Anderson’s films is that he doesn’t care about social proprieties. He likes to makes film about subjects that other people avoid, such as the pornography industry, weird cults, gambling, drugs, you name it. In this case it isn’t at all clear to me that Alana is 25. She says she is, but she lives with her parents and sisters, and her father treats her like a teenager. Be that as it may, the director is interested in the dynamic of an absurdly confident boy falling for an older girl. And this is a personal work for him. Cooper Hoffman, who’s actually 18, is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a close friend of Anderson’s who appeared in five of his movies. Alana Haim is a musician in a group with her sisters, that is called Haim. Anderson is a fan and has previously directed several of their music videos.
Anderson’s humor goes on some strange tangents, not all of which work, but the picture is as good as it is primarily because of Alana Haim. Her character is clearly immature, but she plays at being grown up with complete conviction, while her unacknowledged needs are always leaking through. It’s a marvelous performance, consistently funny and engaging. Haim carries the movie with apparent ease.
The picture has a kind of splashy “anything goes” style, with Anderson’s signature sweeping camera movements and great use of background music. There are good parts for some familiar people: Sean Penn, Tom Waits, and especially Bradley Cooper, insanely funny as an unhinged film producer. But most of all, watch the film for Alana Haim. She’s the real deal.
Oh, and about that title: “Licorice pizza” was SoCal slang for a vinyl record, and it became the name of a popular chain of LA-area record stores. The film doesn’t tell us any of this. I had to Google it to find out. But I think Anderson named his film Licorice Pizza as a way to sum up the ‘70s in his home state. Like the film, it’s an affectionate joke.