As a child of the seventies, I watched the kids in Licorice Pizza, running wild in the San Fernando Valley, parent’s barely an afterthought, with great nostalgia. Paul Thomas Anderson has managed to write a love letter to growing up in LA that is both sweet and innocent and absolutely insane with just a thin thread of bitterness running through it to keep any whiff of saccharine at bay.
As a fan of PTA, I am always waiting for the dark, ugly edges, the inevitable caustic lining to start to show as he picks at the seams. That didn’t happen with this movie. Yes, there is a troublesome Asian running joke centering around the depiction of the real life restauranteur who opened LA’s first Japanese restaurants and a chaste, but weird, friendship between the two lead characters which is occasionally uncomfortable. On the whole, this is a joyous celebration of youthful shenanigans, 70’s latchkey freedom and first love while acknowledging the difficulties surrounding becoming an adult.
Gary Valentine (first time effort by Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a once time child actor who is finding himself to be outgrowing his boyish charms and in the need of a some side hustles. Already showing signs of becoming a fast talking, two bit hustler before his voice has fully changed, he meets Alana, a 20 something (we aren’t sure because she admits to being both 25 and 28 at different times) photographer’s assistant while waiting in line for his school photo. This begins an unlikely and moderately inappropriate friendship although Alana makes it clear that Gary’s romantic ideas will go nowhere and, although she admits it’s weird, a real friendship does grow. She aids and abets Gary as he becomes a waterbed salesman, runs a PR company and opens a pinball arcade.
Alana is played by Alana Haim (of band Haim) and she gives the performance of the year. She is fiesty, restless and has no idea what she is going to do with her life and Haim infuses the character with an infectious, frenetic energy. She is a raw, live wire and it’s hard to believe that she, too, has never acted before. The two lead characters spend most of their time running. Running with each other, away from each other then back towards each other, both metaphorically and literally.
There are scores of delicious cameos – Tom Waits, Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper chew up every inch of the screen for the brief time they spend caught up in this whirlwind of a coming of age movie. I FELT that breathless anxiety of breathing into the phone and hoping the person on the other end can’t tell it’s you – there was no texting so you either called someone or you ran over to their house. Every inch of ever frame was steeped in the era.
In an era of Marvel and lukewarm remakes, Licorice Pizza reminded me how wonderful great movie making is. This is absolutely one of the best movies of the year.