Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the greater Los Angeles milieu of the 1970s, but instead of a despairing tale about the failure of the American Dream, he’s here with a sweet, mostly gentle coming of age dramedy loosely inspired by his own adolescence in the Valley. As someone who prefers spiky, feisty PTA, I am pretty much only here for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by John C. Reilly that evokes the “Tables” sketch from I Think You Should Leave, and the twenty minutes in which Bradley Cooper is running around, playing hairdresser-cum-Barbra StreiSAND’s boyfriend, Jon Peters, buying a water bed from a bunch of teenagers. But if you’d like to mellow out with a meticulously crafted homage to childhood and adolescent hijinks, then Licorice Pizza has plenty to offer.
The film centers on Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour, making his acting debut), a child actor outgrowing his marketability. Gary is a teenager in the 1970s, which means he’s a latchkey kid and pretty much left to his own devices 99% of the time. In fact, his mother, Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), works for an advertising company Gary set up. This kid goes from appearing in a family show to marketing local restaurants to hawking water beds faster than you can say, “Hustle”. Gary stands on the cusp of not only adulthood, but also full-blown criminality. He’s either going to turn into an actual con man or become the best car salesman in the Valley before he’s twenty-five. Could go either way.
The object of Gary’s affection is Alana (Alana Haim, making her feature film debut), a twenty-something woman Gary meets when she’s working as a photographer’s assistant during his class photo. Much has been made of the age gap relationship in Licorice Pizza, but 1) depiction is not endorsement, and 2) the film itself is acutely aware of the inappropriate nature of Gary and Alana’s entanglement. Gary is smitten and not secretive about it—his confidence is key to his hucksterism. But Alana is aware that it’s “weird” for her to hang out with a teenager, and that by doing so, she is just feeding her own aimlessness and prolonged adolescence. Their relationship is 98% friendship forged between two people slightly out of step with their respective peers, and 2% one single, chaste kiss that isn’t leading anywhere. Honestly, their whole vibe reminds me of having crushes on the college-aged counselors at summer camp. Gary has a crush on a cool, older girl; the cool, older girl knows his crush is misdirected, but she’s also so starved for affection that she’ll let him hang around and feed her ego.
Much more worthy of criticism are the anti-Asian jokes made by local restaurateur Jerry (John Michael Higgins). He owns a Japanese restaurant that Gary’s company advertises, and throughout the film he is shown with interchangeable Japanese wives, to whom he speaks in an exaggerated, offensive Japanese accent. He’s meant to be the kind of asshole whose fetishism of Asian women does not prevent him from jettisoning his first wife, who visibly expresses displeasure at his condescending treatment. I don’t need the film to halt in its tracks and moralize from a twenty-first century perspective about why that’s wrong, the audience’s brains can do that for them, but I do need the jokes to be at least good, and they’re just not. Throughout the film, PTA, who also wrote the script, lampoons other figures to greater effect, from the coked-out film producer represented by Jon Peters to the fading film star played by Sean Penn. But the Jerry material feels a little undercooked in contrast.
Licorice Pizza is a paean to a bygone era in which children could run amok with zero supervision from dawn till the next dawn and no one thought twice about it. But it’s not a nostalgia trap, either, there is enough bitter in the sweet to remind us that the 1970s weren’t a great time, and not everyone was enjoying the same amount of liberation as latchkey kid Gary. It’s also a somewhat melancholy look at the difficulty of growing up and finding your place when you don’t seem to fit anywhere. As charming as Cooper Hoffman is as a performer, Alana Haim is more compelling as the complex and struggling Alana. You get the sense that Gary will, ultimately, be okay, that he will find a way forward, and that the 1980s are a decade made particularly for people like him. Alana, though, is the true misfit, the odd-shaped peg with no discernible slot into which to fit. The uncertainty of her future is the dusky gloom hanging over Gary’s coming of age. You get the feeling Gary is going to look back someday and wonder: whatever happened to Alana?
Licorice Pizza is now playing in select theaters and will expand across North America on December 25.