Paul Thomas Anderson’s golden, shimmering vision of the 1970s San Fernando Valley in “Licorice Pizza” is so dreamy, so full of possibility, it’s as if it couldn’t actually have existed. With its lengthy, magic-hour walk-and-talks and its sense of adventure around every corner and down every block, it’s a place where anything could happen as day turns to night.
And yet within that joyful, playful reverie lurks an unmistakable undercurrent of danger. It’s in the score from Anderson’s frequent collaborator, the brilliant Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, putting you ever so slightly on edge. It’s in the searchlights outside the grand opening of a Ventura Boulevard pinball parlor, incessantly beckoning to the sky. And it’s in big, brash moments through showy supporting performances from Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn, both going for broke. Anything could happen as day turns to night—but are you ready for that?
This is a place Anderson knows well from his own childhood and it’s where he still lives today. His love is specific and palpable for the Valley, with its suburban sprawl and non-descript strip malls. This is the place of my youth, too—I grew up In Woodland Hills, just down the 101 Freeway from where the events of “Licorice Pizza” occur, and I recall fondly the Southern California record store chain that gives the film its title. (As a kid, I used to go to the one on Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Canoga Park, across the street from Topanga Plaza.) He’s taken us on a tour of this area before in a couple of the great, early films that put him on the map (“Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”) but with “Licorice Pizza,” he offers us a gentler view. Anderson has harnessed all the thrilling, muscular techniques that are his directing trademarks as well as his affection for high drama as a writer and applied them to telling a story that’s surprisingly sweet.
It’s also wildly unexpected from one moment to the next as Anderson masterfully navigates tonal shifts from absurd humor to tender romance with a couple of legitimate action sequences thrown in between. “Licorice Pizza” meanders in the best possible way: You never know where it’s going but you can’t wait to find out where it’ll end up, and when it’s over, you won’t want it to end. Once the credits finished rolling, I had no desire to get up from my seat and leave the theater, I was so wrapped up in the film’s cozy, wistful spell.
And in Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, both making their feature film debuts, Anderson has given us the most glorious guides. “Licorice Pizza” will make superstars of them both, and deservedly so. Hoffman is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose long and fruitful relationship with Anderson resulted in some of the defining work of his career, ranging from the heartbreaking (“Boogie Nights”) to the terrifying (“The Master”). Hoffman has a very different look and demeanor from his father—he has an infectious, boyish optimism—but he shares his dad’s intriguing screen presence. And Haim is just a flat-out movie star. She has that “thing”: that radiant, magnetic charisma that makes it impossible to take your eyes off her. The youngest of the three sisters who comprise the indie rock band HAIM—they have a long and fruitful relationship of their own with Anderson, who’s directed several of their music videos—she’s got impeccable comic timing and consistently makes inspired choices. Together, she and Hoffman have a snappy chemistry that’s the stuff of classic screwball comedies, but they both seem totally at home in this ‘70s setting. Adding to the authenticity is the presence of Haim’s sisters, Danielle and Este, playing Alana’s sisters. And their actual parents play their parents, all of which pays off beautifully in a hilarious, Friday-night shabbat dinner scene.
We haven’t even begun discussing the plot, but then again, the plot isn’t really the point. In the simplest terms, “Licorice Pizza” finds Haim’s Alana and Hoffman’s Gary running around the Valley, starting various businesses, flirting, pretending they don’t care about each other, and potentially falling for other people to avoid falling for each other. One thing: She’s 25 and he’s 15, and they meet cute at his high school where’s she’s helping the photographers on picture day. What makes this amorphous romance make sense is that a) it’s extremely chaste, b) she’s sort of stunted at the film’s start, and c) Anderson wisely establishes early on that Gary has a swagger and intelligence beyond his years. In a way that’s reminiscent of Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” all the adults Gary encounters take him seriously and treat him as an equal. The fact that he’s a longtime child star has a lot to do with his maturity (and the character of Gary is inspired by Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks’ longtime producing partner, who was an actor in his youth). So when he meets Alana and is instantly smitten by her, he carries himself with such confidence and addresses her so directly that she can’t help but get drawn into his world.