When he made Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson reportedly had two movies in mind: American Graffiti (1973) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). That’s far from a surprise; the film is related to them in terms of style, story and look. Still, one thing that makes Licorice Pizza even better than American Graffiti is its multitude of fascinating, hilarious and heartfelt references to actual life in 1970s San Fernando Valley.
An unusual friendship
The year is, what else, 1973. 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is preparing to have his high-school photo taken when he starts flirting with Alana Kane (Alana Haim), the photographer’s assistant. She’s ten years older and not interested in Gary for real, but still finds him amusing enough to show up for the dinner date he proposes. An unusual friendship begins and deepens throughout a series of adventures, beginning with a trip to New York City where Alana chaperones Gary on a press tour for a film starring the legendary Lucy Doolittle (Christine Ebersole).
However, Gary’s future as an actor doesn’t look too bright and he starts a waterbed company, employing Alana as an assistant…
An incident from 20 years ago
Anderson came up with the idea for the film by observing the same kind of incident that starts Gary and Alana’s relationship – an L.A. middle-school student trying to charm a female photographer. This was 20 years ago and in his script Anderson made it a vital part of his friend Gary Goetzman’s stories of growing up in San Fernando Valley. We know Goetzman now as a successful producer (usually together with Tom Hanks), but in the late 1960s he was a child actor who appeared in a movie with Lucille Ball. Goetzman had many stories to tell, including the one where he once delivered a waterbed to the colorful record producer Jon Peters. Anderson absorbed the stories, embellished them and also added his own experiences of growing up in the Valley.
The making of Licorice Pizza (a random title picked not just because it’s the name of a record chain in the 1970s but it’s also two words that just takes Anderson back to his childhood) was reportedly an enjoyably personal experience, involving Anderson’s whole family and the Haims, including Alana’s father who plays her character’s dad. The movie is packed with rich supporting performances, including showy efforts from Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper. The latter plays Jon Peters in an outrageous vignette that earns its laughs (and thrills) from the 1973 oil crisis, the steep hills of the Valley and Peters’s insane behavior. Penn plays an inebriated William Holden-type movie star who decides to recreate a motorcycle stunt from a film (a story inspired by Evil Knievel). They are both a lot of fun to watch in a film that sometimes has problems with its pacing, but always finds the right path forward in its episodes.
Anderson makes sure we feel as if we can reach out and touch those evenings in the Valley; it’s an irresistible postcard from that place and those times. Through it all remains the troubled but endearing friendship between Gary and Alana, played to perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper (in his debut) and Haim, who’s excellent.
Much of the online conversation around the film concerns a few scenes that illustrate a kind of casual racism that wasn’t uncommon at the time. The audience is clearly meant to laugh at John Michael Higgins’s clumsily racist behavior, but far too many critics took the actual scenes to be racist. Hopefully, the future standing of this lovely film doesn’t depend on that kind of narrow thinking.
Licorice Pizza 2021-U.S. 134 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, Sara Murphy, Adam Somner. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Cinematography: Michael Bauman, Paul Thomas Anderson. Cast: Alana Haim (Alana Kane), Cooper Hoffman (Gary Valentine), Sean Penn (Jack Holden), Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie… John Michael Higgins, Maya Rudolph. Cameo: John C. Reilly.
Trivia: Peters agreed to Anderson’s outrageous portrait of him in the film as long as he included the producer’s favorite pickup line. Haim’s sisters, also part of the pop band Haim, play her sisters in the film as well.
BAFTA: Best Original Screenplay.
Last word: “This is definitely not a case of writing and seeing where it takes you. This is a case of having tons and tons of ammunition and individual pieces that I thought about for a long, long time and I tried to think about it long before I started writing anything about it, which can be quite a healthy way to start if you can enjoy the patience. Usually, you just want to rip your presents open on Christmas Eve. I was disciplined and waited to put this down until I’d more or less thought it through. The trick there is that you still have to have some room for discovery, because otherwise, what’s the point? I’d get bored.” (Anderson, Indiewire)