Licorice Pizza movie review: Paul Thomas Anderson’s hangout movie

Licorice Pizza
Licorice Pizza /

In his memories of a bygone era, Paul Thomas Anderson fuses nostalgia with a familiar setting to him, the San Fernando Valley. Licorice Pizza is the ninth feature film from PTA and seemingly his most anticipated in a long time.

The film follows teenager Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), who meets 20-something Alana Kane (Alana Haim) during a school picture day at Gary’s school. The film chronicles young love during the summer of 1973. Gary is a young child actor, but has ambitions as an entrepreneur. Alana seems lost in life and tags along with Gary and his friends on their various business adventures, some of which include waterbed sales and a pinball arcade.

Rounding out the cast: Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Benny Safdie, Tom Waits, Maya Rudolph, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, and Skyler Gisondo lead an ensemble we haven’t seen in a PTA movie in quite some time.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s hangout movie, Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza was easily my most anticipated movie of 2021. As a huge PTA fan, I will always get giddy to see his latest project. PTA makes the types of movies unlike I’ve ever seen before. Sure, the genre isn’t specific to him, but the writing and plot progression are certainly unique. PTA’s humor verges on absurdist, but it converges with themes of ambition, love, or identity.

Licorice Pizza is a relatively plot-less movie, but is a sweet and hilarious journey throughout the summer, featuring an on-again/off-again relationship between Gary and Alana. Gary has ambition to make something of himself, which seems to attract Alana, who is many years his elder. While Gary seems to be the star of the show, this clearly turns into Alana’s movie. PTA does a great job of depicting the mid-20’s angst and the need to get one’s life started. I think Alana admires Gary’s drive, since she wished she saw it in herself.

This film is both the debut for Haim and Hoffman. Hoffman’s father (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) was a dear friend to PTA, and was featured in five of his movies. Cooper Hoffman seemed like a genuine move by PTA to give Cooper his first shot. However, Cooper seemed like he was extremely authentic in this role. Cooper grew up in the business, and in the film plays a child actor, so it’s not a far stretch. Alana Haim is the star to emerge from this film. Haim of the band, HAIM has worked with PTA before, but through music videos. Haim’s family play her family in the movie as well. PTA has the uncanny ability to recognize talent, where others don’t see it. Alana Haim portrays the role of ‘Alana’ as a frustrated girl trying to make her way through life. It seems like when she’s reading dialogue, she’s natural enough to appear that she is improvising.

I really appreciate the authenticity Licorice Pizza presents. Very little makeup is used. We see the blemishes on the faces of the actors, and PTA is unafraid to use the dialogue to express character intention. Subtext exists, but generally the characters say what’s on their minds.

The needle-drops in this movie are fantastic and among the best in any PTA movie. Songs like, “Peace Frog,” “Life on Mars?,” and “Let Me Roll It” really stand out as immediate classic cinema moments. Johnny Greenwood, longtime PTA music collaborator, scores the film, but Licorice Pizza mostly relies on previous songs to guide the plot.

I will say, Licorice Pizza ultimately did not meet my expectations, but those expectations were incredibly high. I do think it is deserving of a Best Picture nomination, but Licorice Pizza isn’t near the top of the 2021 list for me. I will say, I think this movie will have a lasting effect in the culture. “Hangout” movies seem to seep into the culture one way or another, whether it’s Dazed and Confused or Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, I could easily see Licorice Pizza meme’d in the coming months. Licorice Pizza could prove to be a huge hit with college kids and young people who just want to turn on the flick on a late night.

Licorice Pizza is available now in select theaters across the country for limited early screenings, but will be available in theaters only everywhere on Dec. 25, 2021.

My PTA Rankings: Letterbox’d Rankings.

My score: 8.9/10

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