Paul Thomas Anderson has proven over the years to be a director with a split personality. I’ve always liked that about him, obviously enough to name our site in honor of him. But I’d be lying if I said that just because he’s my favorite filmmaker that all of his work has stuck with me. I look at him a lot like I look at Kevin Smith; Anderson is at his best when sticking to what he knows best and that is capturing the sights, sounds, humor, and mood of his beloved San Fernando Valley. The other side that offers prestige dramas like Magnolia, Phantom Thread, The Master, and There Will Be Blood, is more of a mixed bag with me.
His latest, the delightfully shaggy Licorice Pizza, is a perfect blend of everything that’s great about Paul Thomas Anderson movies. His funniest film in years (Inherent Vice is sloppy, not funny), and I would say the one that is also his most personal, it tells a lovingly crafted unlikely romance that also doubles as a chill-out movie. The best of Anderson’s films make you feel as if you’re just hanging out with a bunch of people as they go about their way, experiencing all there is to experience right along with them. That’s the way I felt watching Licorice Pizza, and I never wanted the hang-out to end.
The film hangs on the performances by two actors with virtually no acting experience. Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, an Anderson regular, plays Gary Valentine. From the moment we meet the awkward-looking high schooler, he’s glowing with confidence. Some of that comes from his burgeoning acting career, but the rest is just pure chutzpah. This kid is a natural salesman, bordering on the shady; he can talk like nobody’s business and convince you of almost anything. But he never comes across as sheisty, youthfully exuberant, maybe, but he’s a good kid. From the moment he meets 25-year-old Alana Kane, played by Alana Haim of the pop band Haim, Gary can’t help himself. She’s drifting through life, helping the students get their high school photos taken, and definitely is not in the mood to get hit on by some teenager. But the flirtation goes on, and she lets it go on despite herself.
What’s interesting about their relationship is that, as it develops, we’re never quite sure how it’s going to end. They become extremely close friends, but for a long time it’s that Gary is the one who’s interested in more, and Alana isn’t. When she escorts him on an acting gig to New York, she starts hooking up with another smooth-talking actor, Lance (Skyler Gisondo). The dynamic is never static, though. At times, Gary moves on from her and it’s Alana who wants back into his life. These two are always out of sync, and yet their various business chemes and other crazy adventures keep them linked. While Anderson doesn’t force feed it to us, we pick up that these two are better together than apart.
There’s something sweet in seeing Gary and Alana come to rely on one another. It’s not the sort of thing we typically see from Anderson, whose romantic films tend to be more caustic. Even Boogie Nights, my all-time favorite film, is a love story but a very fucked up one about extremely damaged people in an ugly business. Punch-Drunk Love‘s couple, that of Adam Sandler and the underrated Emily Watson, features a duo with enough psychological problems to build an entire movie around, obviously. But Licorice Pizza is about as sunny as it gets for Anderson, although that’s not to say it’s without the filmmaker’s penchant to send his characters spiraling.
Crashing into the film like Boogie Nights‘ Todd Parker after doing a rail of cocaine, Bradley Cooper’s Jon Peters (yes, the infamous film producer) takes Gary and Alana on a hilariously chaotic journey involving a failed waterbed business, a broken down delivery truck, and Barbra Streisand. Sean Penn goes way over the edge as Jack Holden (based on The Wild Bunch actor William Holden), a self-deluded prick who tries to weasel his way into Alana’s pants. Uncut Gems actor/director Benny Safdie plays real-life city councilman Joel Wachs, and gives Gary some mature competition for Alana’s attention. All of these little storylines add flavor and richness to the world Anderson has created, but they’re also extremely funny. But what’s great about them is how they cause Gary and Alana to evolve.
Some will take issue with the vast age gap between Gary and Alana, but it didn’t bother me in the least. Anderson is smart in the way he plays it. It’s not as if the difference is ignored; Alana brings it up all of the time. But he doesn’t let that get in the way of what they have in common and the experiences they share, none of which are sexual except for the one time she shows Gary her breasts. And trust me, that was about as unsexy as it gets. Both are trying to find themselves out there, and it’s through the other they can become the best version. Again, it’s all quite sweet, and Hoffman and Haim show such undeniable chemistry. Both are so natural you forget they’re not playing themselves. It’s impossible not to see his father in Hoffman’s performance, too. He’s got a very bright future, and so does Haim if she decides to make acting a regular thing.
Licorice Pizza‘s meandering narrative is a joy. At no point does it ever feel as if it’s heading to a predetermined conclusion. While there are certainly echoes of other teen films, Dazed and Confused and The Last American Virgin come to mind, Licorice Pizza is its own thing because only Paul Thomas Anderson can tell this story in this way. I would gladly go in for two, three, or four more slices of this pizza anytime. It’s the best movie of the year and I’m happy to indulge.
Licorice Pizza is out now in select theaters and goes wide on Christmas Day.