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New to VOD - LICORICE PIZZA

licorice pizza review
A directionless twentysomething woman falls for an entrepreneurial teenage boy.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie

licorice pizza poster

Paul Thomas Anderson has followed up his masterwork Phantom Thread with another character drama centred around a May to December romance. This time it's somewhat controversial, as one half of the central duo is underage. But Licorice Pizza is set in 1973, when a horndog teenage boy would be congratulated for getting together with a woman 10 years his senior rather than being quizzed by the police and social workers. Anderson has made a movie that not only looks like a product of the era it's set in, but also resolutely refuses to judge a less enlightened time. Along with making very little of the legal and ethical ramifications of its attention grabbing central romance, it's peppered with casual sexism, racism and anti-semitism. For anyone over a certain age it will feel true to life, but for younger viewers it may well be an experience akin to a first watch of some beloved 1970s British sitcom.

Anderson's film is inspired by anecdotes recounted to him by the former child actor turned producer Gary Goetzman, who as an entrepreneurial teen started his own waterbed business and pinball arcade. The romantic plotline came to Anderson when he was walking past a school and witnessed a teenage boy hitting on a significantly older photographer's assistant.

licorice pizza review

That overheard conversation gives us Licorice Pizza's spellbinding opening scene, in which we're introduced to the characters of Gary and Alana, and the remarkable first-timers playing them – Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Haim (of the band Haim). 25-year-old photographer's assistant Alana is tasked with wrangling high school kids for their end of year photos and finds herself attracting the attention of the confident and charming beyond his years 15-year-old Gary, who invites her out to dinner.


Gary's claim of being a child actor isn't a line, he genuinely is a rising star, and perhaps this is why Alana decides to throw caution to the wind and meet him for dinner. Like Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas, she finds herself drawn into this exciting new world, but Gary is no mobster - he's a super-intelligent, over-achieving teen with the world at his feet. Rather than simply being a gold-digger, Alana sees something in this kid that she hasn't found in the various deadbeats she's dated, and she also sees a potential way out of her stunted life at home with her parents.

licorice pizza review

Licorice Pizza plays a lot like the origin story of those couples you see blind-buying storage vaults on reality shows. It's set at a time when capitalism was still exciting, when young people were excited for what the future might hold. The biggest crisis of the era, a petrol shortage, seems almost charming on reflection. Gary's first entrepreneurial adventure comes in selling that most '70s of items, the waterbed mattress. Later he takes advantage of an amended bill that allows for the legalisation of pinball arcades. Meanwhile Alana starts working in the office of a political candidate (Benny Safdie) whose idealism marks him as doomed from the off. This mix of politics, liberation through entrepreneurship, a little bit of sex and its vignette structure feels heavily influenced by the feminist sexploitation movies of Stephanie Rothman and the "Nurses cycle" spawned by her 1970 hit The Student Nurses.


The period recreation feels so authentic that Licorice Pizza is clearly a movie inspired by its director's childhood memories, and like Tarantino's Once Upon a Hollywood, it mixes real-life recollections with the inspiration of countless movies of the era. California's cinematic legacy is reflected by a storytelling style that recalls early Cameron Crowe, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Alan Rudolph and Jonathans Kaplan and Demme, along with a dash of American Graffiti and the lighter output of Crown International. And as with Tarantino's love letter to late 20th century California, here fictional protagonists rub up against real life characters. Some are disguised, with Sean Penn playing a character based on William Holden (at one point Alana auditions for a role clearly modelled on the Kay Lenz part from Clint Eastwood's Breezy, another May to December story) and Christine Ebersole as a Lucille Ball substitute. Surprisingly, the most unflattering portraits are painted of characters whose identities aren't disguised. In a somewhat meta piece of casting given his involvement with the A Star is Born franchise, Bradley Cooper plays hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters as a coked out sociopath. Elsewhere John Michael Higgins and Harriett Sansom Harris play a real-life San Fernando Valley restaurateur and acting agent respectively. Both are mockingly portrayed as ignorant bigots, which makes you wonder what sort of encounters Anderson had with the pair in his youth.

licorice pizza review

As you might expect from Anderson, the filmmaking is technically outstanding. His ever-roaming camera sweeps us along with his energetic protagonists, who always seem to be running towards some new exploit, some new potential across town. Once again Anderson proves himself the greatest imitator of Hal Ashby's editing style, with a sequence that opens at a teenage pop culture fair and ends in a police precinct cut to a single piece of music in a manner that recalls the standout "Time Has Come Today" sequence of Coming Home.

But for all his technical virtuosity, it's for his work with his two debuting performers that Anderson should be most applauded. In their first scene together Hoffman and Haim make us feel like they've been acting for decades and have already reached the peak of their profession. Such is their chemistry that you quickly forget about the controversial age factor, and frankly I never bought into the idea of Alana being a decade older than Gary (even though Haim is actually 13 years Hoffman's senior!). Whether this is a flaw of the film's failure to address its central dynamic or a sign that Anderson and his performers are doing such great work that it becomes inconsequential will be for individual viewers to decide.

Licorice Pizza
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.