As pineapples on pizza are an acquired taste, I think so will Licorice Pizza be. Some will be put off by the excessive nostalgia for a time not well remembered. Others will find the age gap between the lovers creepy. Still more will, like me, feel Licorice Pizza is more a set of vignettes than a whole film. However, the film has the blessing of one to two good performances that make it acceptable, if a bit scattershot.
Up-and-coming fifteen-year-old actor Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is instantly smitten with school picture assistant Alana (Alana Haim). Alana, jaded even for a twenty-five-year-old, at first rejects Gary's overtures, but slowly she starts spending far too much time with Gary and his friends.
Gary's acting career sputters a bit, and I figure him whacking Lucy Doolittle* (Christine Ebersole) upside the head while on stage does not help his prospects. Gary's not worried though. His mom runs an advertising firm that helps a Japanese restaurant, and Gary for his part starts first a waterbed company and then a pinball arcade over the course of the film. Alana for her part tries out acting, then helping sell waterbeds over the phone and finally volunteering in a mayoral campaign.
For good or not, the waterbed company manages to sell one to famed film producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper). Peters' purchase comes at a fraught time for himself and the country: he angers the kids with his belligerent manner and Gary in particular when flirting with Alana. The nation is also going through the gasoline shortage crisis, dooming Gary's waterbed business. The pinball arcade business comes only thanks to insider knowledge they will be legalized, but Alana finds that her candidate, Joel Wachs (Bennie Safdie) is closeted and trying to have Alana be his beard. Ultimately, Alana and Gary find they are destined for each other.
I think writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson was reliving either his teen fantasies or wonder years in Licorice Pizza, but I wonder why anyone outside his circle would care. The film does not seem to have a real narrative, kind of drifting from one thing to another in a laidback manner. It seems that those involved, many of whom are Anderson's friends and family, found the film a nice excuse to hang out and have a good time.
Alana Haim for example prior to Licorice Pizza had as her biggest claim to fame being part of Haim, a pop group that consists of herself and her sisters. Coincidentally or not, both her sisters/fellow bandmembers Danielle and Este play her sisters, and their parents play their parents. Her lack of acting is also shown via the fact that the actress and character share the same name. It almost suggests Anderson did not think Alana Haim** would be able to respond to any other name. I am old enough to have never heard of Haim, let alone their music, so I am completely unfamiliar with who they are.
Her performance is good for being a novice, especially when playing against veterans like Cooper and Sean Penn as Jack Holden*. However, I am still unsure whether this is the start of a separate film career for Alana Haim or just a lark.
This is contrast to Cooper Hoffman, who like Alana Haim is making his film debut in Licorice Pizza. He is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was a frequent Anderson collaborator. Again, how much that played in his casting I have no knowledge of. Unlike Alana Haim, however, he does not seem to be playing a variation of himself. Gary is a full character: in turns happy-go-lucky and maddingly possessive, arrogant but naive. Licorice Pizza is a good debut for Hoffman, though like with Alana Haim I don't know if this is the start of a career or just a one-off to allow Anderson to get family and friends together.
As a side note, given that the character Gary Valentine is based or at least inspired by Gary Goetzman one wonders if Licorice Pizza is more a mix of his and other people's memory and fantasy than anything else.
Licorice Pizza suffers from bathing in perhaps too much nostalgia for an era mostly forgotten. I do not think many people will look back on the Nixon years or the oil embargo as happy times. I also think that the ten-year age gap between Gary and Alana is curiously left unexplored. If the genders were reversed, would a twenty-five-year-old man forming a romantic relationship with a fifteen-year-old girl be equally embraced? Alana to her credit does suggest some disgust at hanging around people ten years her junior but agreeing to date or bearing her breasts to a fifteen-year-old is something I am not sold on.
I looked on Licorice Pizza with some confusion as to what the point of it all was. The film just goes through moments without tying them well together. We go from Gary's acting career to ruining Jon Peters' home to the closeted mayoral candidate. To my mind, the film seemed to meander about, circling various moments with no genuine point.
I can recommend Licorice Pizza only due to the performances of Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, though the latter did not impress me as much as the former. Apart from that though, I was generally unimpressed with the film. To be fair though, I actually like pineapples on my pizza, so there is that.
* The character of Lucy Doolittle is clearly Lucille Ball by another name. The television appearance where Gary hits an unsuspecting Lucy with a pillow on (and enraging her afterwards) was to promote Yours, Mine and Ours, which starred Ball. Jack Holden is meant to be actor William Holden, and while I have no knowledge of how close/far Jack is to Bill, the motorcycle scene seems more like something Steve McQueen would do than William Holden.
** I kept repeating "Alana Haim" versus writing "Haim" to avoid potential confusion if I was referring to the actress or the band. When I used "Alana", I was referring to the character.