Film & TV Film Reviews Muse

Review: Licorice Pizza

Thomas Gonzalez reviews PTA's polarizing new film: a sun-kissed tribute to love and show-biz that risks self-indulgence

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Image Credit: BRON Studios

Set in the San Fernando Valley of 1973, Licorice Pizza follows the story of Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a confident hustler and high-school child actor who is infatuated with Alana (Alana Haim), a photographer’s assistant in her early/mid-twenties who is seeking direction and meaning in her life. The film wastes no time in colliding the protagonists’ worlds, opening with a meet-cute in Gary’s high school as he queues up for his yearbook picture to be taken. From here, the duo’s relationship develops across the subsequent runtime: through successful and not-so-successful business ventures, run-ins with the police and awkward encounters with the Los Angeles show-biz pedigree – allowing for moments of exposition where needed. The film functions as a mood-piece of the early 70s with a romantic thread sewn throughout.

Licorice Pizza is an entertaining film. There are several very funny scenes, notably whenever Gary and/or Alana interact with characters in the show-biz sphere. It is in these moments that Anderson’s script is strongest, imaginably since he has spent his adult life interacting with those folk. Harriet Sansom Harris stands out in her brief role as an acting agent, as does Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of a comically neurotic Jon Peters (hairdresser-to-the-stars and boyfriend-to-Barbara-Streisand). Tom Waits and Sean Penn pop up as an eccentric media-mogul double act, bringing some laughs with them. Furthermore, the choice to shoot on film gives the flick a cosy, grainy feel which, combined with the colours and lights of 70s Los Angeles, produce a charming result.

The narrative arc doesn’t crescendo to a singular climax, instead it weaves and meanders through small encounters and occurrences, which is not uncommon for this arthouse wing of cinema. The storyline is grounded in ‘reality,’ offering relatable portrayals of characters and plants us in situations we recognise. Overall, the partially gonzo-style filming of Licorice Pizza pairs with the mumblecore narrative successfully. However, the dialogue in some scenes muddies the tone of the film, with the hyper-realistic tracking shot of Gary and Alana’s first encounter let down by clunky, theatrical dialogue. As the film continued, however, this uncertainty eventually faded.

In a podcast with Picturehouse, Paul Thomas Anderson says that Licorice Pizza is about “kids running around LA”. I didn’t quite realise he was being literal in that statement. The film is rife with lengthy shots of one or both of our protagonists running in glee or anguish beneath an attractive California sun. All these moments needed was The Who’s Baba O’Reilly to make them a staple coming-of-age cliché. The shots were pleasing and gave me the urge to jog across sunbathed concrete. Having said this, I felt as though the effect was sometimes lost on me as I was distracted by Cooper Hoffman’s running technique. I still can’t quite put my finger on it, nor do I particularly want to. Nobody needs advice on their running posture from me – the guy hunched over a laptop, punching opinions into a Word document. What I will say, however, is that he didn’t look like he was having fun on these spontaneous sprints. At all.

I try to be positive in film reviews as I know that, usually, a lot of time and effort has gone into the film’s creation. Despite this, I have a couple of gripes with Licorice Pizza. Firstly, it’s too long. 90 minutes is the ideal length for a film like this. Three acts to bring these two youngsters together or apart with adequate time for goofs and gags on the way. Licorice Pizza, on the other hand, clocks in at two hours and 14 minutes. This length isn’t a problem in itself; however, it seems excessive when there are several characters who are introduced yet seemingly lack any real purpose by the time the credits roll. It felt as though Paul Thomas Anderson had watched Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and thought to himself “hey, that looks like fun.” Secondly, I wasn’t entirely sold on the character of Gary. At times his whole shtick of being a happy-go-lucky kid who is 15 going on 24 didn’t come across as charming, but rather a bit pushy and unlikeable.

I hope you are not put off by the cynicism of the previous paragraph. Overall, I thought the movie was a good watch. Alana Haim gives a very strong performance, as does Cooper Hoffman for the most part. The setting is attractive and full of nostalgic yet comforting pastel colours. Each scene plays out, ironically, like pizza. When it’s good, it’s good. And when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

Editor’s Note: This film was screened at City Screen York

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