Paul Thomas Anderson is a director who refuses to be nailed down, but I think it’s fair to say that he may be one of the funniest storytellers making movies today. His knack for comedy is unique and unusual given his caliber of acclaim and the incredibly serious works he’s made. His latest film, Licorice Pizza (a slang term for vinyl records), is his funniest yet, and perhaps his most heartfelt. It’s an ambitious hang-out movie that doesn’t worry about driving the plot forward as much as it just wants to spend time with its young characters in 1973 Los Angeles. With complete confidence, Anderson will glide his movie forward to wherever it needs to be to unfold the awkward romance Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim). With both Hoffman and Haim giving breakthrough performances,Licorice Pizza is a treat from start to finish as it provides a distinct snapshot of time and place while also being a universal story of first love.
Gary is an incredibly confident 15-year-old with an acting career who meets 20-something Alana, who is working for a photography business, during his high school’s picture day. The two strike up a flirtatious friendship, but the timing for them never seems to be quite right. When Gary is interested in Alana, she’s interested in another guy, and when Alana is interested in Gary, he’s off with another girl. And yet whenever they’re most likely to split, they discover they need each other even more, which leads to them getting into various schemes like selling waterbeds or trying to figure out how to weather the oil embargo. With their constant friction, Gary and Alana feel destined to be with each other if only they could get over their own petty jealousies and insecurities.
Anderson has never shied away from scarring his audience, and his previous love stories—Punch-Drunk Love and Phantom Thread (and even to an extent, The Master) are about people who are so damaged that they express love with the language of harm. Licorice Pizza doesn’t do that. Licorice Pizza is about as pure hearted as Anderson can get while still remaining true to his characters and their setting. There’s nothing particularly “wrong” with Gary or Alana; there’s no reason he’s pursuing an older girl any more than she has feelings for a teenage boy. It’s just how their feelings coalesce for each other, and Anderson wisely keeps their interactions surprisingly asexual. Even when Alana shows Gary her breasts, it has all the intimacy of a business transaction, which is where their friendship largely dwells as young business partners who refuse to admit that they’d like to be something else to each other.
The film is purposefully loose and ramshackle as it focuses more on Gary and Alana’s growth individually and as a couple, and the film, despite Anderson’s excellent direction, simply would not work without Hoffman and Haim. Both characters are tricky because they need to be both disarmingly charming and offputtingly insecure, sometimes within the span of a few moments. It’s not just that they bounce off each other beautifully (as the opening scene demonstrates), but also you can see why they would be attracted to each other. Hoffman’s grin can light up a room and Haim’s ferocity can melt your heart. But the film’s magic trick isn’t even so much rooting for these two to get together as much as the sheer enjoyment of being in their presence despite all the mistakes the characters make.
Anderson trusts his audience that they’ll hang with these two and that their backdrop is convincing to the point where we believe that a bunch of kids could run a waterbed business in 1970s Los Angeles. While there’s a temptation in modern moviegoing to hold our standards to those of the period, Anderson, with his trademark confidence, doesn’t blink in making us invest in this setting and understanding there’s an almost “anything goes” wildness to the period, which melds nicely with the freedom of Gary and Alana’s relationship. When a man (John Michael Higgins) does an awfully racist impression of a Japanese accent to his Japanese wife, it’s a full-cringe moment, but also completely believable within the confines of the era (and while we like to think ourselves more advanced, would probably be believable in a contemporary setting). When you ask a film to transport you, you may end up in a place you don’t want to go.
And yet I must admit that if Licorice Pizza were another three hours long, I’d happily stick around. It’s filled with so many winning vignettes that you feel like you’re listening to someone recount the wild stories of their youth. Anderson pulls in real-world figures like notorious film producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and local politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), which only adds more texture to the world while still making the film painfully funny (Cooper is barely in the movie and yet I would be totally okay if he got a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his hilarious performance). It’s a story about the pitfalls of young love and how we end up hurting someone we’re attracted to only to rush to heal them when we see they’re in pain. It’s a specific moment in time and yet it’s a time in life that most of us have experience. Licorice Pizza is by far Anderson’s sweetest and funniest movie, and I can’t wait to see it again.