In Licorice Pizza, director Paul Thomas Anderson (of Boogie Nights fame) serves up a dreamy romp, a whimsical, would-be romance between a confident boy and lost young woman in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s. Only problem is, he’s fifteen and she’s twenty-five. What keeps this from being creepy is the chaste, comical and balanced nature of their relationship: the marvelous Cooper Hoffman (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son) plays the swaggering, past-his-expiration-date child star Gary Valentine, while Alana Haim plays the smart-mouthed, breath of fresh air Alana Kane, who meets Valentine when she’s working as a photography assistant for his high school photos.
The entrepreneurial and resourceful Valentine knows just what he wants from the world; Haim does not, and much of the film focuses on her journey of self-discovery. The implausibility of romance is what gives the film life, catapulting the story line in a euphorically backwards, downhill ride in a truck full of waterbeds. It’s a coming-of-age story where almost no one grows up and you don’t even care.
“You’re going to be rich by the time you’re sixteen,” says Alana to Valentine when they first meet for dinner. “I’m going to be taking pictures of kids when I’m 30. You’re going to forget me.”
“I’m not going to forget you,” he replies definitively. “Just like you aren’t going to forget me.”
Turns out, he’s right.
While much of the film is a summery frolic, danger lurks on the periphery, bubbling up in the dark shadows and street corners. Much of it comes in the form of classic misogyny; the film is fluttering with invitations to a seedy underbelly of salacious suitors. There’s the womanizing jerk played by a demonic Bradley Cooper, and the photographer who sexually harasses Alana during a photo shoot. Then there’s the Asian restaurateur, played by a brilliant John Michael Higgins, who trades one Japanese wife for another like the porcelain dolls he references in a PR spot, patronizing each with an over-the-top Asian accent. (It’s so in-your-face you hardly register the offense.) Sean Penn even makes a memorable cameo as an aging film star who drops Alana off the back of his motorcycle like yesterday’s garbage.
But there’s also an easy comradery among the women in the film, a banding-together of the bikini-clad waterbed model, the young waitress in full Geisha get-up, and the ever-trying Alana. They seem to simultaneously acknowledge their vulnerability while accommodating the male gaze as long as they think it serves them. Are all the males in this film jerks? At one point, Anderson seems to suggest this.
In one particularly heart-wrenching scene, the gay boyfriend of a City Council hopeful embraces Alana in a sad hug after she walks him home when his lover snubs him at dinner.
“Do you have a boyfriend? Is he a shit?” asks the man. When Alana laughs ruefully, he affirms the sentiment. “They’re all shits, aren’t they?”
But the film is less worried about this and more interested in romance. Or, at least the idea of it. It’s what keeps us watching: a longing for the future, as mysterious and as exciting as it might be, told in the high-relief of youth, bound up in all the chain-link fences, arcades and the frivolities of childhood. It’s as interesting and unlikely as licorice pizza.
Movie Times at Village Theatre, click here
Genre: Drama, Romance, Comedy
Runtime: 2h 13m
Actors: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie