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'Licorice Pizza' Review: A sublime Alana Haim anchors PTA's slippery coming-of-age dramedy

The director of "Phantom Thread" returns with something more buoyant but just as emotionally informed.

A sublime and double-edged movie about how everything means something else when you’re 15 and another thing altogether by the time you reach your mid-20s, “Licorice Pizza” sees Paul Thomas Anderson returning to the time and place of his breakout feature, 1997’s “Boogie Nights.” The end of that movie, if you’ll recall, finds Dirk Diggler attempting a comeback, muttering to himself half-convincingly that he’s a star. Meanwhile, somewhere across the San Fernando Valley, Cooper Hoffman’s pimple-faced Gary Valentine acts like he doesn’t need to be convinced of it. While other kids his age are finishing their algebra homework, he’s pooling together money to open a waterbed store, enlisting his similarly underage comrades like a group of lost boys who don’t think they’re lost, or otherwise don’t mind it. 

The teens in “Licorice Pizza” are always finding themselves where teens shouldn’t find themselves. For Gary – a smooth-talking performer and salesman who eventually discovers how they’re the same thing – welcoming patrons to his story, Fat Bernie’s, is just one of those places. Elsewhere he orders (soft) drinks at a bar, drives monstrous trucks to clients’ mansions and, in the film’s opening sequence, courts a woman 10 years his senior. Not quite shrugging him off and not quite humoring him, this is Alana Haim’s Alana—at once the newfound apple of Gary’s eye, “Licorice Pizza’s” most luminous asset and a debut performance for the ages. When Gary cheerfully yells after Alana that “This is fate that brought us together! Fate!”, you wonder if you’ve ever heard the word charged with so much conviction.

Then again, fate indeed may be stitched into this movie’s seams. For one thing, “Licorice Pizza” is constantly humming at or very close to a frequency of pure cinematic pleasure, Anderson’s precise direction pulling us ever toward the horizon of a San Fernando Valley brimming with potential in the eyes of its young would-be conquerors. For another, Anderson and Haim’s creative partnership extends to the several music videos he’s directed for the pop band she leads with her two sisters. 

Whatever spark the director noticed on those sets glows brightly in “Licorice Pizza”; there’s at least half a dozen different ways Haim smiles in this movie, each conveying something different. Her debut is branded-in-your-mind memorable, so dynamic, naturalistic and easygoing that one imagines how she caters to a live crowd able to reciprocate in real time. Filling that role quite capably is young Hoffman, lobbing his screen partner’s energy back at her with a mature cadence that carves into each line of dialogue two or three more sides than the one you initially notice on the surface. Whether the young actor will go on to follow his father, the late Philip Seymour, into PTA’s carnival of performers remains to be seen, but his onscreen arrival brings its own revelation. It’s a mixture of familiarity and youth that’s utterly disarming and wholly magnetic. 

In one early scene where Gary attempts to convince Alana that she didn’t waste her time humoring him, Hoffman curls up the last syllable in every sentence to make the character seem years more experienced than he is. It’s funny, intentional, revealing and darkly double-sided—much like the movie itself turns out to be. Later, as they walk home, two different realities play out on their faces. A simple way of summing up the film that follows is it’s a catalogue of their attempts to decipher which reality is worth getting lost in. 

Those escapades are consistently engrossing, laced with the unsettling epiphany that the older the colorful character we come across, the more volatile their definition of having made it in life is. Most every episode that makes up the 133-minute “Licorice Pizza” is anchored by Gary or Alana or both, the shifting contours of their relationship giving Anderson’s screenplay its backbone and its emotional mystery. They bicker, they banter and they tease. Sometimes they even bait. Squint your eyes and you might notice a fresh-faced iteration on the push and pull between Reynolds and Alma in Anderson’s “Phantom Thread”; to the extent that Alana is potentially as much of a performance artist as Gary, the comparison may not be inaccurate. 

But while “Phantom Thread” is about two people who have long settled into the compromising nature of life as a grown-up, Gary and Alana are dancing around the edge, basking in a California sun that Anderson (serving as his own cinematographer, alongside Michael Bauman) utilizes for both its blissful heavenly glow and the hard-edged shadows it creates. Just as “Boogie Nights” can be described as both a grand old time or a thorny epic in the pitfalls of self-righteousness, so too can “Licorice Pizza.” But this movie’s darker undercurrents are exactly those: undercurrents, submerged far deeper than the former’s sweat-streaked spiral into cultural obscurity. This makes the newer film both more engaging and self-incriminating. Dirk may believe he’s a star at the end of “Boogie Nights,” but the audience of a new era still has to confirm it. The ragamuffins of “Licorice Pizza,” on the other hand, are young enough that they think belief is all they need, and wouldn’t the world be a better place if that were true? The things which make “Licorice Pizza” Anderson’s most ravishingly innocent work since Adam Sandler stocked up on pudding cups for the frequent-flyer miles are more often than not the same things which make it one of Anderson’s most tense. 

Consider one scene near the end of the second act in which, during a moment of seeming romantic betrayal, the latest pop hit Anderson has deployed is suddenly muted and relegated to the background. Things become feverish and untethered, “Licorice Pizza” suddenly deepened by the surfacing of an instability these characters are constantly trying to restrain. Yet it doesn’t culminate in some grand monologue (“Licorice Pizza” is chatty, but not wordy). And so while it’s easy to recall specific scenes in the afterglow, the sensation remains appropriately amorphous, just as so many things are for Gary and Alana at this point in their lives, at this point in relation to each other.  

Even more than being a showcase of remarkable performances and ‘70s specifics, “Licorice Pizza” exemplifies contemporary Anderson’s beguiling filmmaking touch—his moods tend to slip across cuts while narrative specifics are withheld. It’s downright frightening sometimes to watch Gary and Alana try to keep their balance, particularly in one marvelously taut sequence unfolding behind the wheel of a very large truck and in the vicinity of a very unpredictable Bradley Cooper. But for us, it remains as delightful as ever to go slip slidin’ away through Anderson’s singularly strange blend of melancholy, prickliness and farce, with not much of a clue where we'll end up. 

"Licorice Pizza" is rated R for language, sexual material and some drug use. It opens in San Antonio theaters Friday. 

Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson