Does any filmmaker own a decade as much as Paul Thomas Anderson owns the 1970s? In Boogie Nights, he gave us the freewheeling, sexually-liberated seventies (that cocaine-like rush of feeling invincible followed by a crash). In Inherent Vice he gave us the paranoiac, Rome-after-the-fall seventies, beset by cultism, secret societies, and nihilistic escapism. In Licorice Pizza, his latest, Anderson offers a more personal take on the decade, one specific to showbiz and the San Fernando Valley, but still essentially defined by a lack of adult supervision. He gives us once again the seventies as a moral power vacuum, where the “responsible” adults are all dead or asleep at the wheel, leaving the kids in charge to try to remake the world however they see fit.
Cooper Hoffman plays Licorice Pizza’s lead, Gary Valentine, a former-ish child actor trapped in a sort of career purgatory. He has the precocious pomposity and worldly careerism of a show business veteran, which he sort of is, but a big, awkward body and a spotty face that mark him as no longer suitable to play kids excited about Tonka trucks or breakfast cereals. Gary is 15 when we first meet him, preparing to take his school pictures but mostly hitting on the photographer’s assistant, Alana (played by Alana Haim from the band Haim), even though she’s in her twenties. Which he does with all the suave self-assuredness of a professional bullshitter twice his age.
This first scene is the last time in Licorice Pizza that school is either depicted or referenced; that it’s even really acknowledged as an idea. Gary, this budding Dale Carnegie, has already grown out of it. His mom (played by Mary Elizabeth Ellis) is sort of present, but more as a colleague than a parent — the two are even partners at a PR firm, trying to craft the perfect press release for the local Japanese restaurant (with the paternalistically racist proprietor played hilariously by John Michael Higgins). School? Why waste time preparing when you can just try things out?
Cooper Hoffman is, obviously, the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whereas other directors might also cast famous sons or daughters (legacy cases making up a substantial contingent of those who can afford to pursue acting as a career these days), only Paul Thomas Anderson — himself the son of an actor and television host — leans into it as an overt theme. Licorice Pizza‘s credits are littered with equally famous names: Haim, Giacchino, Hershlag, DiCaprio, the latter of whom, Leo’s dad, plays a waterbed salesman, apparently a job he’d actually had. If the seventies was the decade of no adult supervision, the San Fernando Valley is a place where no one even has to grow up, a sort of Lord of the Flies for starry-eyed dreamers.
This world, of famous names and folks scheming on the fringes of show business, is something Anderson knows well. Even his wife, Maya Rudolph, is the daughter of a songwriter and a composer. Just as it’s hard not to see a little of Wes Anderson in Max Fischer from Rushmore, the precocious private school dilettante, it’s hard not to assume that there’s a little of PTA in Gary Valentine. Valentine is a lovable bullshitter and the ultimate opportunist, unafraid to start a new business venture the instant it seems to have growth potential, whether that be selling waterbeds or opening an arcade. It’s not so much that Anderson gives this impression in interviews or personal appearances, it’s more that Gary Valentine has a distinct whiff of Don Cheadle attempting to open Buck’s Stereo World in Boogie Nights, or Dirk and Reed’s foray into power pop, or even Daniel Plainview realizing his son can be a helpful prop in There Will Be Blood. Anderson loves hucksters the way the Coen Brothers love the arcane vernacular.
Alana, meanwhile, is Gary’s perfect foil, a decade older and seemingly half as experienced. She lives to call bullshit on Gary’s latest spiel and clown his insufferable career-speak, yet still feeds off his drive, knowing deep down that without him she’d still be stuck working in some dull job. Why have a job when you can have a venture?
Part of me does wonder whether Paul Thomas Anderson was trolling the QAnon types when he made a movie about a pseudo-love affair between an adult woman and a teenage boy, and then cast it with every famous name in Hollywood, but if you can silence that internal Alex Jones slavering about Satanic globalists, the Alana-Gary connection is meticulously explained and smacks of verisimilitude. His movies have always explored the blurry boundaries between childhood and adulthood, both personally and culturally. Alana and Gary just kind of fit, they’re even sort of weird-hot in similar ways. And it’s hard to say which actor seems more prematurely fully formed in both of their feature film debuts, because they’re both pretty perfect, the combination more than the sum of its parts.
The whole movie is like that, to some extent: this loosey-goosey, real and hyper-real SoCal picaresque, full of wild-eyed weirdos with a backdrop of the gas shortage. Gary and Alana are the emotional center but lots of the fun comes from the episodic side characters. Like Bradley Cooper showing up as a megalomaniacal Jon Peters buying a waterbed (see Kevin Smith’s infamous Superman story for more background on this), or Sean Penn’s unforgettable turn as an alcoholic William Holden with his star on the wane. Wringing this much charm from Sean Penn in 2021 borders on sorcery.
Perhaps more than any other filmmaker, Anderson has a way of making movies that actually are about the journey and not the destination. I truly could’ve watched The Master or There Will Be Blood for as long as he wanted to make them, never needing closure or explanation.
Yet Licorice Pizza manages a genuine crescendo, flaming out in a grand finale just as it reaches emotional climax. There were times watching it when I was skeptical that I could see another scene of the characters running or being lit by neon, but this was one of those rare endings that make it all feel worth it. Licorice Pizza seems to further all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s pet themes while adding a personal twist, and at this early stage it’s hard to think of it as anything other than a masterpiece.