Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Licorice Pizza’ Wistfully Evokes 1970s Southern California 

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” so vividly evokes Southern California’s San Fernando Valley of the 1970s, that it feels taken from that time and place, as if it were some lost classic only now restored. It further solidifies Anderson as the quintessential California filmmaker of our time. From his intimate dramas to grander epics, the director has charted a unique map of the state’s history defined by human quirks, madness and tenderness. This one is a “love story,” where two young people form a real bond after seeming woefully mismatched. It’s also about how such bonds endure some oddball, heartbreaking miniature storms along the way, especially during summers that feel like daydreams.

They meet at a local high school on picture day. Gary Valentine (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son, Cooper Hoffman, in his film debut) is 15 and overly confident. Alana Kane (Alana Haim) is 25 and helping out at the school when Gary boldly asks her out. Of course she doesn’t take it seriously, but doesn’t feel too threatened and starts hanging out with Gary in a very chaste buddy routine. Gary happens to be a child actor who still does events to commemorate a TV show he was in years ago. This helps explain why he carries himself as an adult wherever he goes. He also has a driven business mindset always searching for the next great idea. Alana thinks she could act, but deals with her own inhibitions from still living at home with a very traditional, overbearing Jewish father. She can’t help but be drawn into Gary’s orbit as he decides to open a waterbed business. Both will try to find romance with different prospects, meet some weirdos along the way, and soon enough, deal with the hassles of the 1973 oil embargo.

“Licorice Pizza,” named after a Southern California record store chain, is Anderson’s warmest film since “Punch-Drunk Love,” the absorbingly strange romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler. It brings the director back to the era in Los Angeles that also defined his breakthrough hit “Boogie Nights,” about the ‘70s porn industry. Unlike that film, however, Anderson doesn’t go for a manic, feverish feel. He opens this film with a serene tracking shot of Alana walking down the outside of the high school, bathed in sunlight. The tone of the movie continues swaying between being lively and dreamy. It’s a romantic comedy of sorts, except the characters feel like real people and nothing ever happens perfectly timed. Gary may be confident, but he’s 15. Alana has genuine fun helping him open the waterbed business, even wearing a bathing suit to greet customers, yet represses tinges of jealousy when she catches Gary flirting with girls his age. Anderson writes and stages this all as a rather tender comedy, where the older Alana never does something dangerous or compromising, but battles against her own feelings. She will channel her frustrations by also reminding him who’s older, with phrases that in the ‘70s probably did cut deep, such as, “remember, I’m cool.” Gary can’t avoid still being more immature compared to Alana, and can’t accept that he met the girl of his dreams yet fate mocks him with bad timing. 

As with most of Anderson’s films following “The Master,” plot tends to take a backseat in “Licorice Pizza” to the detailed conjuring of an entire era and environment. “The Valley,” as Los Angelinos lovingly call it, is as much of a character as Alana and Gary. Anderson wants to remember brilliantly sunny days, rich sunsets and the enclosed feel of living in those corners of Los Angeles with greener hills, just a few blocks away from where the concrete metropolis creeps in, but in the days before the internet. It’s an era where Gary and Alana, while making a waterbed delivery, cross paths with a slimy client like Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), a real hairdresser who dated Barbara Streisand. He has a violent, nearly psychotic temper and starts getting too close to Alana. Peters also delivers some great comedic relief when he too can’t escape the effects of the 1973 gasoline shortage. Another memorable appearance is by Sean Penn as Jack Holden, who also casts an eye on Alana when she auditions for a film role. He takes her out to dinner in one of those subtly dangerous moments so many women have endured in L.A., before the scene devolves into another bit of Anderson madness involving a motorcycle stunt. Alana will learn an even more crushing emotional lesson later, when she volunteers for a young, charismatic politician’s campaign and discovers his heartbreaking double life.

 The casting is crucial and Anderson has chosen very keenly here. Alana Haim is the youngest member of the indie rock band HAIM, composed of three sisters. Several of the band’s music videos have been directed by Anderson and it’s easy to see how he found inspiration to cast her in this story. Haim features a presence that is alluring in her snappy maturity. She’s older than Gary, but still insecure, willing to get tough with her friend but clams up around someone like Holden. Cooper Hoffman is a choice both inspired but also holding a powerful resonance for Anderson. He is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who appeared in Anderson’s great early films “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” and brought a sophisticated intensity to “The Master.” The younger Hoffman has his own kind of charm in the welcoming, sharp attitude he gives Gary. Other adults respond to him as an old soul. Then there are the most moments, like goofing off around his waterbed truck with friends that remind us he’s indeed a kid. Even Alana can only stare and wonder why she keeps hanging out with teenagers.  The pairing of Haim and Hoffman feels more truthful than other onscreen friendships or couples. It should be mentioned they actually look like real young people, and not the false, overly-glamorized supermodels of other films and shows.

Shot in 70mm, with the director serving as his own cinematographer with Michael Bauman, “Licorice Pizza” is a striking aesthetic pleasure when it comes to nostalgic filmmaking. Even more than recent trips like Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Anderson wants to feverishly evoke the days of his own childhood. The soundtrack has songs from the era while avoiding cliché choices. Anderson knows how to use the music to reach moments of near poetry, as when Gary and Alana lie down on a waterbed that seems fluorescent, with air bubbles beneath the surface, scored to “Let Me Roll It” by Paul McCartney and Wings. The final moments are sweeping and gloriously romantic, but with a special sense of tenderness. This is a filmmaker who has been known for the ferociously intense, such as his oil tycoon epic “There Will Be Blood,” or the lazily mysterious, as in the hippie noir “Inherent Vice.” By toning down the volume just a little and remembering youthful days where nothing is ever too clear at first, Anderson has made one of his best films. 

Licorice Pizza” releases Nov. 26 in select cities and expands Dec. 25 in theaters nationwide.