Film Review: Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2021)

Licorice Pizza, the auteur's ninth feature film, is probably Paul Thomas Anderson's most personal film to date, which is weird when one considers the story he is telling here is someone else's story. The story is set in a 1973 Southern California that is probably more idealized than the actual time and place were - but that's part of what makes the film so goddamn good. 

Based on the life of former child actor turned movie producer Gary Goetzman, whom Anderson had worked with before going the director route himself, the film is a series of charming vignettes in and around the fringes of Hollywood. Anderson himself had grown up in and around the fringes of Hollywood, but about a decade or so after the setting of this film. That being that, even though the brunt of the scenarios, such as starring in a film with Lucille Ball (played loosely her by Christine Ebersole), or starting a waterbed company and delivering a waterbed to Jon Peter's home (played to the height of camp by a scene stealing Bradley Cooper), are pure Gary Goetzman, the feel of the film comes from Anderson's own childhood nostalgia.

The film revolves around 15 going on 40 child actor and budding entrepreneur Gary Valentine and his strange relationship with 25 year old Alana Kane, whom he meets while she is working as a photographer's assistant on school picture day. Gary immediately hits on the older woman with the confidence of someone who feels they have nothing to lose. These two form a weird but loving relationship as friends and eventual business partners. Granted Gary wants more, but the age difference won't allow it. Perhaps in 1973 SoCal, such a difference wouldn't matter to most people, but today it wouldn't fly. In fact the only one that questions it is Alana herself, even though we can easily see she is falling for the young charmer as well.

These two roles are played by two newcomers on the scene. Cooper Hoffman, son of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Alana Haim, one-third of the pop sister act Haim. Again, we see how personal this is for Anderson. The elder Hoffman was good friends with the director and starred in five of the filmmaker's movies. Meanwhile Anderson has directed several music videos for Haim and is a friend of the family - who incidentally play Alana's family in the film. We also see two star making performances here, especially with Ms. Haim. The actress gives a performance worthy of being called one of the best in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. And that is saying a lot when you look at all the great performances we have seen in his films over the years from the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix, Julianne Moore, Lesley Manville, and the aforementioned Mr. Hoffman.

We also get brilliant turns by the likes of Sean Penn (as a stand-in for William Holden), Tom Waits (as a batshit crazy director, who may or may not be based on Sam Peckinpah), John Michael Higgins (as an offensively racist restaurant owner), Harriet Sansom Harris (as Gary's possibly completely insane agent), and Bradley Cooper playing Jon Peters, the Hollywood hairdresser turned producer who claims Warren Beatty based his lothario character in Shampoo after. Anderson even got Peter's permission to put him in the film on the condition he used his favourite pick-up lines. Cooper, who not only chews the scenery but swallows it, plays Peter's as if he were a coke-fueled mobster kingpin wannabe he could lay any woman in Hollywood. I'm guessing Peter's, who pretty much was a coke-fueled mobster kingpin wannabe who could lay any woman in Hollywood back in the day (he even married five of them, including a short-lived marriage to Pamela Anderson over quarantine last year) loved Cooper's bravura performance.

But again, as much as this is a movie about other people's lives and adventures, it stands as Anderson's most personal film to date. He filled the film with his friends and neighbours in bit parts and even his own children can be seen running around in the background, along with their mother, Anderson's wife, the great Maya Rudolph in a cameo. The title, which is never explained in the film, comes from a record store chain in SoCal back in the director's youth. The name acts as a Proustian memory recall for Anderson's own childhood. The director, who also acts as his own cinematographer, here teaming with Michael Bauman, shot the film on 35mm with old lenses that gave the film that distinctly nostalgic 1970's cinematic feel. The set design, including recreating the once legendary Tail O' the Cock restaurant in L.A. (demolished in 1987) that famously was the the first place in the US to serve margaritas (at least that what they claimed) and was the setting for many a Hollywood movie deal of extramarital get-together, added even more to the nostalgia of the era.

Acting as if he were channeling Robert Altman, another great SoCal filmmaker (and someone PTA tends to channel a lot), and especially his The Long Goodbye or Short Cuts, this is still a coming of age film in the same vein as American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused. Licorice Pizza gives us a lazy but quite hyper-active (a la Altman) look at growing up in and around the fringes of Hollywood, USA. A Hollywood that, not unlike Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood from two years ago, that is stuck somewhere between the old studio system and the new brasher young turk era of the biz. It may be one of Anderson's smaller films, as opposed to the wide open opulence of There Will be Blood or the biblical allegory of Magnolia, but it may also be one of his best works. One of his most subtle, but also one of his most brilliant films. It may also be the best goddamn movie of the year.

That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.