2 Feb 2022

Movie review - Licorice Pizza

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 2 February 2022

Watching Licorice Pizza the other day I was reminded that despite some pretty heavy films there has always been a strand of comedy (or the absurd) running through the films of Paul Thomas Anderson. The “I drank your milkshake” conclusion to There Will be Blood is profoundly odd. Phantom Thread, Daniel Day Lewis’s final film, has moments that are just brilliantly funny – often improvised – alongside all that romantic tension. And we don’t even need to talk about the frogs falling from the sky in Magnolia.

Licorice Pizza has more than its share of those sort of jaw-dropping moments, but it has something else that makes it a wonderfully watchable film in these troubled times: a sweetness, a lightness, a love for its characters.

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Photo: 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It’s set in the San Fernando Valley of 1972. The valley isn’t Hollywood, but it’s Hollywood adjacent. A classic American suburb with some delusions of grandeur but also something tacky and try-hard about it.

Our central character is 15-year-old Gary Valentine, a high school student and fading child actor. He’s clearly not going to transition into a leading man, but he’s put enough money away and sees himself as something of an entrepreneur.

In the queue for his high school yearbook photo he meets Alana, a dark-haired 25-year-old working for the Tiny Toes photo studio who run the production line.

Not short of confidence Gary starts flirting with Alana and asks her out, eventually getting a commitment to meet for drinks at the Tail o’ the Cock bar in Encino – even though he can only drink soda he’s a regular there.

Like so many kids who have spent most of their lives operating in the adult world he knows how to live inside the trappings.

Gary is a debut for Cooper Hoffman, the son of PT Anderson regular the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (may he rest in peace) and the apple has not fallen too far from the tree there. Alana is played by rock musician Alana Haim and this is her first time on screen playing someone who is not herself.

Anderson has always been an actor’s director but by casting relative unknowns like this we can also see the skill he brings.

Chemistry is not easily discovered or nurtured in inexperienced actors but there’s bucket loads to spare here. Perhaps it’s because of what seems like an incredibly relaxed, family atmosphere on set.

Looking through the cast list there a couple of Spielberg children, a Demme, a couple of Giacchinos, a handful of Rudolphs (Maya Rudolph has a cameo and she’s been Anderson’s partner since forever), lots of fun cameos by friends of the director including Leonardo DiCaprio’s dad George and Tom Waits.

But most delicious of all is that Alana’s family are played – in their entirety – by the real Alana’s family: Este and Danielle from the band and their parents Moti and Donna.

I haven’t talked too much about the plot and that’s because there isn’t too much. It’s a summer of adventures for Gary, Alana (and Gary’s friends) as he goes to New York to do a television show with someone based on Lucille Ball, starts a waterbed business, a pinball business and is almost arrested for murder.

Meanwhile, Alana auditions for a movie with Jack Holden – as I’ve alluded to, many of the characters in the film are clearly based on real people, like Sean Penn as someone who could be the movie star William Holden, but some of the characters are actual real people like the local politician Joel Wachs (played by the co-director of the Adam Sandler film Uncut Gems, Benny Safdie) and the mercurial film producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper).

It’s just occurred to me how brilliant it is that Cooper – the director and star of the most recent A Star is Born should play the person who produced the 1974 version. So meta.

Licorice Pizza is rated M for offensive language, sexual references and drug references and should also be rated five emoji love hearts for sheer charm. It’s playing in selected cinemas across the country now.

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