Licorice Pizza is the third time writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has reminisced and semi-romanticized the San Fernando Valley during the 1970s. His previous two efforts in dealing with that time period were his breakout hit Boogie Nights (1997) about a John Holmes-type actor becoming a star in the adult film industry, and Inherent Vice (2014) about a Philip Marlowe-type detective trying to solve an unusual missing person case. This time with Licorice Pizza he has crafted his most personal film about the time period and setting. Licorice Pizza is reflecting on what it feels like to have your first love. This is his ‘coming-of-age’ picture and it feels more autobiographical than any of his previous films. This may be his most personal film but not necessarily one of his best.
The first shot shows teenage boys looking into a mirror and combing their hair. Suddenly a toilet explodes and one of the doors comes loose with water spraying everywhere as the boys run out of the frame. We then meet the two main characters. The boy is played by Cooper Hoffman, son of the late-great Philip Seymour Hoffman who was a frequent collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson, starring in five of his feature films before his untimely passing, and Alana Haim who plays the slightly older female love interest. The former continues a trend started earlier this year with Michael Gandolfini (son of James) starring in The Many Saints of Newark. The concept involving sons of late actors stepping in and playing younger versions of their fathers to a certain degree does not quite work out as well as it should have in either situation. Both the young Hoffman and Haim are newcomers and very normal, unglamorous, and plain. They look like they could be your neighbors, or at least your neighbors kids. This was obviously the intention Paul Thomas Anderson was going for by casting them but what both of these new potential future stars lack is charisma to carry the weight of an entire two and a quarter hour picture. The two meet meet after the bathroom explosion at the boys high school during picture day and she is working with the photographers hired to take the students yearbook photos. He confidently asks her out, she acknowledges their age difference yet still miraculously agree to show up and all of the following events in the film unfold after this.
Licorice Pizza contains some long tracking shots that are expertly done. Nothing as elaborate as the long opening shot from BoogieNights, or some of the spectacular one take shots in his previous film Phantom Thread (2017) but they are impressive nonetheless. A lot of moments in this film contain the two main characters running. Either running towards each other, or running away together. Even the final image before the credits roll is a moment of these two characters running. This recurring motif is essentially meant to be a metaphor for life moving by too fast, especially moving fast when you are young, in love, and having fun. The films pace sometimes moves fast skipping weeks or months ahead at a time. Yet at other times the pace seems aimless, as if the movie and time stops and there is not a care in the world. Paul Thomas Anderson is too talented of a writer and director for this to not be intentional but it makes Licorice Pizza feel uneven.
This movie is filmed literally and realistically but it works best when you suspend disbelief and look at it as a metaphor and a fantasy about an older man reflecting on his first love during a time that no longer exists. Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, and Tom Waits have been featured in some trailers and all have small and rather inconsequential roles that could have been played by anyone. It was nice to see Maya Rudolph in a small role but Licorice Pizza is solely about the story of the two youths and the trials and tribulations of their relationship. With so many other options to stream at home, this is not necessary viewing for anyone other than the directors most ardent fans.
Two final notes, I have no idea what the title is supposed to mean or represent other than possibly an ironic riddle. There is no licorice and there is no pizza. Like the seemingly irrelevant title A Clockwork Orange which on the surface has no connection to anything in that novel or film. Also, I did very much enjoy John C. Reilly’s small cameo as Herman Munster at a convention. You may not recognize his face but you cannot miss his voice and he played pivotal roles in Anderson’s first three films and this is the first time he has starred in a P.T. Anderson picture since Magnolia back in 1999.
Skip Licorice Pizza and check out Boogie Nights which captures the 70’s era better than this film does and remains one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s most deeply engaging and best films of his career.