Some movies have a certain spark to them — a magic of sorts that pervades the entire film and makes it feel nostalgic even if one has never experienced anything similar to the events of the movie. LICORICE PIZZA contains this energy in spades, reminding one of the times in life when obligation was small and spontaneity was plentiful. Director/writer/producer/director of photography Paul Thomas Anderson writes this movie about the time and place he grew up in, but the specific experiences were not derived from his own life. Yet somehow, Anderson manages to craft the film like an autobiography about the times he yearns for from his own life. This mentality is communicated heavily through the themes and artistic decisions of LICORICE PIZZA, which creates authentic moments full of humor, deep subtext and earned nostalgia.
The plot of LICORICE PIZZA can seem like a love story on the surface, but in execution the narrative is more of a coming-of-age tale of two naive and young free spirits. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a 15-year-old aspiring Hollywood actor who already has his own entrepreneurial efforts in starting a water bed shop and making his name known in the community. Alana Kane (Alana Haim) is a 25-year-old who is taking portraits for the high school that Gary goes to, and he falls in love at first sight, despite the unacceptable age difference of the two (I’ll address this topic later in the review). Gary and Alana embark on a wild and memorable summer together, full of unethical decisions, toxic behavior, and near-misses with danger. The two start out with unbelievable chemistry, and while this never disappears, it also devolves into heated arguments, backstabbing and mutual manipulation.
The instant aspect of LICORICE PIZZA that stands out and doesn’t stop shining until the very last frame is the two lead performances. Hoffman and Haim are making their feature film debuts in this movie, yet these are easily two of the best performances of the year, injecting the movie with a limitless charisma that never fails to impress. Hoffman is wonderfully awkward in the first act, knowing exactly how to play each moment for the maximum amount of uncomfortable humor, but his endless confidence still shines through and charms the audience right out of their seats. Haim is the perfect antithesis to Hoffman’s confidence, but she also creates an incredible character of her own. Her great timing and hilarious facial expressions make each scene exponentially better, and she commands the screen better than an actress with four decades of film experience would. Both should be frontrunners for awards this season, a remarkable feat for newcomers of any caliber.
What is truly special about LICORICE PIZZA is the way it reflects the innocence of youth, while also transitioning into the adult realization of how one’s life fits into the bigger picture of the world. Gary represents the innocence aspect of the story, even though he is yet another overconfident male in Hollywood who never fails to get into lucrative situations because of his charm. However, Gary fails to realize that the world does not revolve around him, and that the actions he chooses in the present may affect his future and those who care for him. In the beginning, he has wild dreams of the things he will accomplish, but as the movie progresses he understands the reality of his actions even though he still decides to lean into his youth. Alana, however, is aware of her place in the world even when we first meet her. Yet she too goes through a period of growth in which she is aware of how her community affects her and her friends. By the end, her maturity far outstrips that of Gary, which is why their relationship always has just as many periods of toxicity and bickering as it does adventure and romance.
Much controversy has been created around the age difference of the two protagonists, with people claiming that the movie glorifies and condones an illegal and unethical relationship. While LICORICE PIZZA does depict a questionable dynamic, the film in no way endorses the relationship — in fact, I’d argue that Anderson’s entire point here is that their relationship leads to chaos and imbalance because of their ages. While both of these people are searching for their own meaning and have good intentions, they often manipulate other people for personal gain and direct that behavior towards each other, creating an unstable situation that could crash at any given moment. The beauty of LICORICE PIZZA is in the complexity of the story Anderson is telling, not in the glorification of a relationship that by all means should not exist. Yet these truths are challenged by the overt nostalgic qualities of the narrative, which has an American Graffiti-like carelessness and randomness to it. The nostalgia is something that 25-year-old Alana indulges in by being interested in Gary, and neither wants to escape it by the end of the film.
The one major issue with LICORICE PIZZA is the ending, which feels rushed to wrap up the complicated themes of the relationship in a tidy bow. This relationship is not one that needed a typical rom-com ending, but instead the ending should be unresolved and uncertain to reflect the constant ups-and-downs Gary and Alana perpetuated. Instead, the ending presents a glossy, feel-good picture that in no way reflects the tone of the painting that Anderson seems to craft with the rest of his film. However, this ending is nowhere near enough to dull the effects of Anderson’s magical movie experience, which often feels like gliding through a fairyland where nothing matters but the decisions we make in each fleeting moment. Even when the reality of the world begins to hit Alana, the magic of LICORICE PIZZA remains, and while this could be attested to the nostalgic quality of the story, the truth is that this film is just a wonderfully-created rarity of creativity in a Hollywood reliant on formula.