Licorice Pizza is the Work of a Veteran at His Craft

A real love story that doesn’t feel manufactured in emotion comes along maybe once a year. This year it’s Licorice Pizza; a film about a romantic bond that develops between a 25-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy. Such an exigent age between the two would often be considered repulsive by some. Then again, if we look throughout film history, we never think about it when the genders are reversed. Paul Thomas Anderson makes no assumptions in their age in the picture. Everything feels authentic. There’s no makeup on the actor’s faces, and the use of celluloid brings the streets of 1973 San Fernando to life.

The film’s story is primarily based on Mr. Anderson’s friend and Hollywood Producer, Gary Goetzman’s youth. Gary Valentine sells waterbeds in the film and then later opens an arcade, which Gary Goetzman did as a kid in real life. Viewing its synopsis, Licorice Pizza isn’t very different from most other love stories. It’s what happens in between that counts. The movie is flooded with unbelievable moments featuring a fantastic supporting cast of memorable goofballs. Wait until you see Bradley Cooper tear up the screen as Jon Peters, a notorious man in Hollywood for being crazy.

Here’s why Paul Thomas Anderson might be one of the greatest filmmakers to grace this generation. PTA never settled on one style until he nailed it. Hard Eight was a simple point 3 camera setup job from a novice filmmaker. After getting a feature under his belt, PTA released Boogie Nights, then Magnolia. Both are Goodfellas homages with its steady cam surfing the environment and the editing moving at a manic pace. 

Now the transitional phase occurs. Paul Thomas Anderson directs the vastly overlooked Punch Drunk Love, a film that looks and plays completely different than his last two fast pace film with the speed switched to slow cinema. At last, there’s There Will Be Blood, a bizarre period piece which may be one of the greatest films in the last decade. At least in my opinion. After TWBB PTA evolved a little more by each film, creating nostalgic callbacks or enigmatic period pieces. 

Licroice Pizza is unique where it feels like a mixture of Punch Drunk Love and Boogie Nights with There Will Be Blood’s attention to detail sprinkled in. The story begins in 1973 San Fernando. Alana Kane, played by Alana Hame, VERY SUBTLE PTA, is being flirted on by Gary Valentine, played by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s son, Cooper. Over time, a romance develops between the two that is more spiritual than sexual.

The film looks incredible. As with Phantom Thread, PTA goes full Steven Soderbergh working as a director of photography on the film with D.P. Michael Bauman. I had the pleasure of seeing the movie projected in 35mm film. The natural grain you get from those melted horse hooves has a gamma range between its black and white spaces that are still missing in digital. The day before my screening, I received an email informing me a different showing for the film had to be pushed to a later time due to a malfunction with the DCP (Digital Cinema Projector). PTA knows, like anyone, there’s a place for celluloid, and here’s another reason why. 

Accompanying the cinematography is Florencia Martin’s production design that brings 1973 San Fernando to breathtaking life. From the dirt on the streets to the flickers of the lights at the local cafe, everything looks so believable you can smell what’s on-screen. Although I’m not sure if you’d want to. For all its visual flare the film wouldn’t work without a stellar cast. 

Alana Haim is superb in her role. She’s the correct mix of defensive and friendly to make any teenager develop a crush on her. Casting Cooper Hoffman is a beautiful gift to leave for a missed friend. Cooper’s written as a charismatic 15-year-old boy with the wisdom of a 25-year-old man. Theoretically Cooper’s playing his dad, but from all the good memories PTA had of him. 

The wit is pure PTA. Rian Johnson should take note, that is how you perform bathos, by not undercutting the scene but adding to the emotion. At one point, Gary is infuriated that Alana won’t present him her mammaries but is willing to put them on public display so she can land a job that would help her boyfriend/not boyfriend out. Out of frustration, Alana shows him them when they get home because he guilt trips her into it. When he asks if he can touch them, she slaps him in the face and says, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” That type of humor is funnier than the typical comedy because of how grounded it is.

There’s a frailty to human interaction in our need to be polite or make a point that Mr. Anderson touches upon flawlessly in all his films. He understands the awkward moments between us far before The Office even existed. In an alternate universe I could see Paul Thomas Anderson as a comedy writer.

Licorice Pizza is a tribute to fallen friends, the power of love, and a passion for celluloid. Not a joke thuds, nor is any emotional moment played up. When the lights came up, I wanted them dimmed and rewind the reel. Licorice Pizza is the perfect date movie to bring your partner to. The chemistry between Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim is hypnotic. Whenever they’re not together, we feel that absence. This is Paul Thomas Anderson at his prime. 

Written by Mike Crowley

Mike Crowley is a full member of the Chicago Indie Critics. He periodically produces video content for and writes weekly film reviews for his publication You'll Probably Agree. He also writes content for Film Obsessive from time to time. You can follow him on Twitter, Tik Tok, and Instagram @ypareviews

Leave a Reply

Film Obsessive welcomes your comments. All submissions are moderated. Replies including personal attacks, spam, and other offensive remarks will not be published. Email addresses will not be visible on published comments.

Still from Polygraph, one of December's Criterion Channel short film recommendations. Yasmine and Orr argue. There is a subtle visual division in the shot.

Criterion Channel Short Film Recommendations for December 2021

A quarterback drops back to pass and looks downfield.

American Underdog Lionizes More Than a Mere Football Player