Review: Licorice Pizza (2021)


Licorice Pizza (2021)

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson | 134 minutes | comedy, drama | Actors: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Benny Safdie, Will Angarola, Griff Giacchino, James Kelley, Milo Herschlag, Phil Bray, Patrick Aranda

What were those teenage years like? Messing around with an idea you had 15 minutes ago and claiming you’re going to reinvent the wheel. All that swagger and bravado when you are mainly still inventing things instead of finding them. Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, ‘Licorice Pizza’, revolves around that bird’s-eye view of a time, starring lovebirds Alana Kane, a wandering twenty-something, and bumbling teenage actor Gary Valentine. Like the flammable relationship between these two misfits, the film harbors a fireball of energy: Alana and Gary’s surrender to a thousand and one crafts, and each other, is highly contagious. Moreover, this production is golden advertisement for 35 mm film, because Anderson (he also shares the credit for the cinematography) shows once again that older film techniques are still an inexhaustible source for free-thinking and thrilling cinema.

You can think of it so crazy, but this film makes the waterbed business in the Los Angeles of the seventies one big party, even compelling when, among other things, an oil crisis and producer Jon Peters threaten to throw a spanner in the works in Gary’s business plans. In terms of humor ‘Licorice Pizza’ is at home in all kinds of markets: from layered to flat, from verbal fireworks to slapstick. And if you have reservations about the age difference between Alana and Gary, she 25 and he 15, there is still plenty to do. As you prepare for Gary’s waterbed empire, keep an eye out for a cameo from the father of one of the planet’s most famous Hollywood stars. The whole film is full of these kind of funny surprises, hidden like Easter eggs.

Film debutant Alana Haim, who plays Alana Kane, has been playing for fifteen years with her two sisters in the band ‘Haim’ (Hebrew for ‘Life’), for whom Anderson has also directed several video clips. It is extremely clever that she does not seem to have a child in a leading role in her first film appearance. Alana is in fact a wad of fresh charisma that can stand out sharply for longer working actors. Other actors in ‘Licorice Pizza’ take advantage of Haim’s explosive performance, including debuting Cooper Hoffmann (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffmann) as Gary.

It’s not just hilarity, though, because this coming-of-age comedy also shows the dark sides of the party. One time you’re impressed by alpha male producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper on steroids), the next you and Gary and his friends fear this escaped male gorilla, for whom a compliment can just as well pass for a threat. And this is just one of many side trails that cross Alana and Gary’s roads out of nowhere.

The preoccupation with the role of chance in life is remarkable in Anderson’s work, it is ingrained in the structure, the DNA, of his films. Just like in ‘Magnolia’ (1999), many encounters in ‘Licorice Pizza’ arise out of pure coincidence. The capriciousness of human relationships mainly translates into unpredictable and tender moments. ‘Licorice Pizza’ is a celebration of perhaps the greatest coincidence in our lives, love, an unofficial remedy (with a bulky leaflet) for loneliness.

Incidentally, it is clever how ‘Licorice Pizza’ makes the living area of ​​the characters, Encino in Los Angeles, tangible. Just like in your childhood, every corner of the neighborhood feels authentic. Anderson said in an interview that this film is actually a kind of neighborhood film, made by and with the community of Encino, which is located in the San Fernando Valley (the seat of Hollywood). They must have had so much fun during the recordings, because that clearly radiates from the end result.

Nevertheless, ‘Licorice Pizza’, just like the average teenager, also commits a number of eye-catching missteps, such as the tempo drops somewhat after the first 45 minutes and there is a range of abrasive humor in it, of which certainly not everything works. At times the jokes even balance on the edge of inappropriate, for example in the interaction between an American owner of a Japanese restaurant chain and his wives.

Besides the fact that ‘Licorice Pizza’ truly breathes the teenage life in 1970s Los Angeles, it does the same with the American cinema and television of the same era. There are allusions to classics such as ‘Taxi Driver’ (Martin Scorsese, 1976), but also to lesser-known gods, who can quiz you just like with ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ (Quentin Tarantino, 2019). Anderson’s film is also clearly in the tradition of American coming-of-age films, such as ‘American Graffiti’ (George Lucas, 1970) and ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ (Amy Heckerling, 1982): ensemble films about teenagers who are about to are leaving the parental nest. In addition, the love duel in Anderson’s film shares elements with screwball comedy, as in ‘What’s Up, Doc’ (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972) with Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal in a contrarian romance.

In the end the title says it all, ‘Licorice Pizza’ is a pleasantly crazy madman ride with a bittersweet topping. Like ‘The French Dispatch’ (Wes Anderson, 2021) this is that other American Anderson in overdrive – many of his pet peeves pass by, and if you’re into that, then it’s extra fun. However, if you are annoyed by a plot that consists of loose sand or the many inside jokes about American television and film history, this may not be your pizza. Yet you will miss something. ‘Licorice Pizza’ is a unique patchwork of image and sound, taken from life, but with extra salt and pepper for unprecedented fun.