Alana Kane, the tempestuous 25-year-old played by Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza, is waiting around for adulthood to happen to her. She lives at home with her parents and her two older sisters (all played by the other members of the Haim family), and works for a school photographer, a job that isn’t helping in how it keeps her circulating among teenagers. It’s while at a portrait day that she meets Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old who’s doing his damndest to will himself right into middle age, and who makes a pass at her that’s so ridiculous — he invites her to swing by the upscale Tail o’ the Cock restaurant, where he claims to regularly dine — that she’s intrigued despite knowing better. Given the actual men that Alana meets over the course of the movie, who range from the barely seen first boss who doles out casual ass slaps to a hilariously feral Bradley Cooper as hairdresser-turned-Barbra Streisand-boyfriend Jon Peters, it isn’t hard to understand why the playacted but harmless form of maturity affected by Gary might be appealing. Licorice Pizza — a movie as exasperating as it is delightful — could be described as an exploration of the unstable ground where Alana’s arrested development and Gary’s precociousness meet.
Except, and here’s the thing about Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Alana and Gary’s untenable maybe-romance is the least compelling aspect of the movie. Licorice Pizza is as much a meander through the peculiarities of the San Fernando Valley — close enough to Hollywood for unglamorous brushes with show business, and far enough away to feel like any other aimless suburb — in 1973 as it is about the two kids at its center, and its best parts are ones in which the kids are an excuse for some unpredictable digression rather than the center of one. It’s not that Alana and Gary are unlikable, though the movie tends to be more enchanted with the latter, its SoCal Max Fischer, while letting the former slip in and out of focus. Haim, in her first acting role, is testily compelling, slipping between raw vulnerability and outbursts of disbelief in herself for glomming onto a high school friend group. Fellow first-timer Hoffman, son of the later Philip Seymour, plays into Gary’s ex-child actor dynamic, pairing that eerily poised presence with a face still soft with boyishness. But these characters’ will-they-or-won’t-they poses a question for which there’s no satisfying answer. Either Alana gets her shit together and puts away childish things, or this grown woman and teenage boy run off into the sunset together in a way that’s impossible to root for, while also obviously doomed.
Licorice Pizza isn’t really Alana’s story, but it isn’t quite Gary’s, either, and the movie really needs to belong to one of them in order to feel a little less like an extended fantasy about wanting to boink one’s babysitter. But if it isn’t able to offer a perfectly offbeat romance on the level of Punch-Drunk Love and Phantom Thread, it’s not discardable, either. It’s a Valley idyll that feels like it could encompass a stretch of time that’s anywhere from a few weeks to a year, the weather constant, school barely spoken of. Given the youth of its characters, it almost makes more sense for the story to take place over some hectically compressed period that only feels like it’s stretching out forever. Gary, who’s constantly coming up with entrepreneurial side-hustles, starts a waterbed business that somehow becomes a pinball arcade by the movie’s end. Alana, filled with confusing jealousy as well as a desire to do something with her life, goes on a date with a beef jerkyesque man’s man actor named Jack Holden (Sean Penn) and starts volunteering for the campaign of an idealistic but closeted politician (Benny Safdie), and somehow always makes sure Gary is around to see.
The narrative cul-de-sacs these exploits lead to are mostly wonderful, save for the appearance of John Michael Higgins as a racist Japanese restaurant owner — the kind of joke whose butt is obvious but that results in laughter that’s less precise in its target. All of these episodes are messy, as though some choice recollections were gathered at a bar one night and then dramatized. The encounter with Peters, whom Cooper plays as a volcanic font of macho posturing and horniness, is the movie’s highlight, a misadventure involving a waterbed delivery, a gas shortage, and some wondrous timing. But almost as good is the sequence in which Alana ends up on the back of Jack’s motorcycle at the goading of an equally pickled director (Tom Waits) who wants Jack to reprise a famous stunt. A priceless Harriet Sansom Harris pops up to play a casting director who informs Alana that she has “a very Jewish nose — which is becoming more fashionable.” And Joseph Cross has a lovely, heartbreaking moment as an unacknowledged boyfriend Alana is summoned to play the beard for.
The urge to describe Licorice Pizza as nostalgic is an understandable one, given its unapologetic wallow in the textures of its particular place, where Anderson grew up, and its particular time, when he was a child too young to log these experiences himself. But the film is too prickly in its depictions of the era to be accused of glossing over ugliness. Its backward-looking longing has more to do with a desire to return to the uncertainty of the period of life its two characters straddle. There’s an understanding, one that can only come after the fact, that those feelings of being lost are a sort of privilege.
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