Let’s take care of the main business: Go see Licorice Pizza. If you want to see a film with verve and lightness, if you would like to be entertained by art, if you would like to leave the theater with a rekindled sensorium — go see this movie.
It’s 1973 in LA County’s San Fernando Valley. The sprawling home to the film studios of Warner Bros. and the Walt Disney company, as well as the former porn capital of the US, the Valley is also the longtime abode of Licorice Pizza’s director, Paul Thomas Anderson. Previous Anderson films set in the Valley have been epic or sprawling in scope, like Boogie Nights, which traces the rise and fall of the Golden Age of Porn over a seven year span. But Licorice Pizza has a a narrower focus: we are here to witness the choppy and charming burgeoning of romance between Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim). Gary is a smug hustler of a 15-year-old, who helps his mom run a PR company and acts in minor movie roles. Alana, 25, lives with her parents and works as a photographer’s assistant. The age difference between the characters has raised concerns, but their romance is a chaste one, their love primarily platonic. Haim’s performance has been justly praised by pen pushers across the nation, whereas that of Hoffmann (son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) has generated shrugs. To hell with the critics! He acts just as slick, annoying, petulant, and endearing as he needs to, even if his co-star burns brighter.
The two meet on high school picture day, when Alana is working and Gary is waiting to have his portrait taken. Part of Alana’s job is to hold a mirror up to whomever in the parade of teens wishes to fix their hair, a service Gary accepts. In a formally beautiful and atmospherically awkward close-up, we see Gary smugly combing his bangs in Alana’s mirror, then Alana’s face as Gary pesters her to go to dinner with him. What follows is a flirtatious tug of war.
From these picture-day beginnings, Licorice Pizza marks itself as a movie not merely about young love but media, business, and the business of media — a world to which Gary aspires, and into which he ropes Alana. The first time they go out, he asks her the same questions a Boomer dad might ask his daughter’s date: “So Alana, what are your plans? What’s your future look like?” before enticing her with his own ambitions. We witness Gary’s audition for an acting role (“You can wear the new Sears tan suit this way!”), and when he starts a business selling waterbeds, we see him adopt the persona of a sleazy TV-commercial director (“Who wants to be famous? There’s my star. There’s my star.” he coos to his bikini-clad waterbed model).
Alana is soon in cahoots with Gary’s waterbed business, and further media frenzy ensues, first as they market their product, then as Gary encourages Alana to pursue acting gigs. We see Alana’s flashy performance of saleswomanly seduction after Gary insists she must “make it sexier” when peddling waterbeds over the phone, a scene concluding with the words, “I told you I’m a good actress, Gary” (and she is). And we see Alana interviewing twice, first with a talent agent (Harriet Hansom Harris), then with a producer (Dan Chariton) and a famous actor modeled after William Holden (Sean Penn).
(Alana’s first interview is an excuse for Anderson to display Harris’s virtuosic portrayal of an emotionally unhinged Hollywood gatekeeper. The second is a segue into the film’s one bad scene: a rehearsal of Tinseltown excess by Penn and Tom Waits, who plays a drunken and predictably raucous film director. Waits and Penn’s scene is fit with a motorcycle stunt, flames, booze, etc., and it functions like a sign reading: WHAT YOU’RE WATCHING RIGHT NOW IS REALLY CRAZY. Because of such unsubtle handling, the moment is actually pretty boring.)
All this media business veers toward that parallel universe peopled by marketing and acting: politics. Alana starts volunteering in the mayoral campaign of the up-and-coming Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) — an ambitious city councilman whose real-life counterpart advocated for the artistic and LGBTQ communities of LA County — and Gary gets on board by filming political ads for him, a narrative thread leading to the most earnest moments of Licorice Pizza, moments you will not get me to spoil. Suffice it to say that Anderson temporarily puts the humor on hold to address the harsher constraints of political life in the 70s.
Gary and Alana’s foray into marketing, money-making, and cinema isn’t without its brambles, brambles that often take the form of egomaniacal and horny men. There’s Alana’s photographer boss, who slaps her butt as she walks across the high school gym. There’s the white owner of a Japanese restaurant, who replaces one Japanese wife after another and staffs his establishment exclusively with young women in kimonos. There’s Bradley Cooper as the manic, hilarious, and terrifying Jon Peters (modeled after the eponymous film producer and former boyfriend of Barbara Streisand), crooning unwelcomely into Alana’s ear as they steer a rental truck, “Oh yeah, slow and smooth, just breathe.” And there’s Gary himself, in many ways traversing the path paved by these industry elders, coaching Alana to “Do whatever she asks you” before her interview with the talent agent, only to sulk that she’d “show [her] tits to the whole world but not to me!” when she follows his advice.
Such moments are played for laughs, and these they mostly merit. The men in question come off as ludicrous asshats and Alana more than holds her own, slapping Gary in the face when he asks to touch her breasts, correcting Gary’s introduction of “lady friend” to “business partner” during a waterbed meeting, and emitting an aura of latent pugnacity wherever she goes.
And yet, these flashes of misogyny and racism can’t help but recall the murkier depths of the Hollywood of yesterday and today. To suggest, as some critics have, that these motifs be excised from the film is revisionist, and I think Anderson was right to claim, in a recent interview with The New York Times, that “It would be a mistake to tell a period film through the eyes of 2021.” At best revisionism flatters our political consciousness; at worst it distorts our engagement with history. I think the question should be not “Is Anderson wrong to portray the racism and predatory sexism that was endemic to the era?” but “How does Licorice Pizza portray these dynamics, and does it do so adequately?”
In Licorice Pizza, audience members are supposed to laugh at characters who themselves are racist or sexist, whereas in films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (in which the actor Mickey Rooney portrays a shockingly offensive caricature of a Japanese man), white audience members were supposed to laugh at characters representing racist stereotypes. In other words, instead of creating humor out of racist caricatures or misogynistic clichés, Anderson makes jokes at the expense of racists and sexists.
However, Anderson might trivialize these entrenched issues by declining to sound beyond the film’s comedic surface, by opting to frame morally questionable characters as little more than buffoons. Anderson likely wanted to keep Licorice Pizza a light, summery film, but given his success at melding lightness with gravitas and humor with awfulness (see: Boogie Nights, Phantom Thread, even There Will Be Blood), it’s hard not to be disappointed by his commitment to levity.
If some thematic strength is sacrificed to Anderson’s effort to keep things sunny, Michael Bauman (cinematographer), Andy Jurgensen (editor), and Anderson himself compromise none of the exhilarating photography that’s defined the director’s work. Licorice Pizza is without the stark grandeur of There Will Be Blood or the immaculate elegance of Phantom Thread, but it’s wrought with its own powerful visual idiom. Perhaps the film’s most striking formal feature is its sustained closeups — shots so intensely intimate they leave out not just part of a character’s body but, often, part of their face. Indeed, Licorice Pizza is a film about love and growing up, but it’s also a film about, well, faces: both their expressivity and their power to elude. From the opening shots of Alana and Gary to the electric performances of Harris and Cooper, tremendous tension is wrung from subtle shifts in actors’ expressions. What is particular to Anderson’s approach is his patience, his willingness to let the camera linger. In doing so, the film is animated by unpredictability: we often don’t know where a scene is going or a character’s emotional state from one second to the next. In part through such dynamic closeups, in part through its protagonists multidimensionality, Licorice Pizza conveys something of the vertiginous sense of possibility that exists in the space between the soundstage and the dressing room, adolescence and adulthood, friendship and romance.