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Licorice Pizza is the summer film we’ve been waiting for.

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Licorice Pizza screening provided by Universal

“The best film of the 2021 from a filmmaker that feels at his most comfortable. Anderson has created a 70s coming-of-age film with two of the most realised characters in recent American cinema history.”

Paul Thomas Anderson is a personal favourite filmmaker of mine. He is a wonderfully chameleonic auteur that has readily shifted interests and genres throughout his career from the LA porn industry in Boogie Nights (1997), to London high fashion romantic drama in Phantom Thread (2017). His films have a spontaneous energy which stems from his propensity to have characters drive the story in unique and unexpected ways. In his latest feature Licorice Pizza (2021), Anderson returns to the San Fernando Valley in the early 70s of his youth to create an immensely entertaining coming-of-age story. 

The film follows Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman) – a child-actor turned burgeoning entrepreneur based on the film producer Gary Goetzman (a name some may recognise from the films of Tom Hanks or Johnathon Demme) – and his budding friendship/romance with Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the band Haim), a photography assistant he meets on school photo day. Licorice Pizza wastes no time getting into the story, as in under five minutes the pair collide in one of the best meet cutes I’ve seen in years. 

From there, we are off to the races, literally. The characters in the film are constantly running, expressing the freedom of youth, as well as the universal adolescent desire to rush into the future. An exhilarating moment of running occurs after the 70s oil crisis has left the city a wasteland of abandoned cars on the streets, which Anderson juxtaposes with Gary running in between these cars to the immaculate tune of Life on Mars? By David Bowie.

Anderson has gone away from soundtracks in his recent films — leaning more towards getting Jonny Greenwood to create some of the greatest scores of all time — but here he goes back to one of the defining aspects of Boogie Nights of being so keyed into his work to create a poignant and memorable soundtrack. Licorice Pizza also achieves the definitive use of Paul McCartney’s ‘Let Me Roll It’ that, like ‘Layla’ in Goodfellas (1990) or ‘Stuck in the Middle with you’ in Reservoir Dogs (1992), can never be used in another film going forward.

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Cooper Hoffman & Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza

Music is heavily tied to the film, which feels only right seeing as Anderson cast Alana Haim from her band Haim, who the director has known for many year’s and has become their visual collaborator akin to Spike Jonze with Beastie Boys. What’s remarkable about those Haim videos is Anderson uses his regular crew for them as his movies, creating this familial connection that extends into Licorice Pizza in a beautiful way. It’s also fantastic to go back to view these videos with the lens of Anderson in the process of writing a script for Alana.

Anderson extends that familial feeling into the casting of Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, two first time actors he’s known for a long time (their whole life in Cooper’s case, and in Alana’s case, her mother was Anderson’s primary school art teacher that left a mark on him), as well as his entire family being involved in the film. The entire Haim family is cast as Alana’s family, which gives those scenes a sense of reality and comfort for the first time actor.

What allows Alana to truly shine as a character is the truly wonderful and natural performance from Alana Haim that ties the whole film together. She has a sweet but hardened spirit mixed with a nervy energy and fierce loyalty that puts you in anticipation of how she’ll respond to every scene, never allowing the film to overwhelm the character.

Anderson is a great lover of movie stars, with his filmography helmed by great male performers like Daniel Day-Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix, Adam Sandler, and Tom Cruise, so it is an intriguing choice to cast 2 first time actors in the lead roles, but they both excel. Anderson eases the burden on Haim and Hoffman by peppering in joyful moments with Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, and Tom Waits that spark colossal moments for Gary and Alana throughout the film. What really stands out in the casting of Cooper and Alana is that they look like regular kids from the Valley, as well as being two people we have no previous film relationship with. It is a special experience seeing a first time actor blow you away, exciting you for what may come next.

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Bradley Cooper & Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza

Traditionally, this style of film (especially those based on a real person,) will focus almost exclusively on the male protagonist, oftentimes under-writing a promising female lead into  being a background player by the film’s conclusion — but Anderson is anything but traditional. What allows Licorice Pizza to open up and become a transcendent film is how well established Alana’s character is, someone who begins the film seemingly on solid footing but we see over time is unsure of her place in the world. You can feel Anderson shifting his interests and focus from Gary to Alana over the course of the film in a terrifically natural way. Anderson has described his writing process and forming the characters and having them drive the story, entering a sort of autohypnosis, and it feels most evident here.

The film is not flawless however, as one aspect that falters is the casual racism of the Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins) character. It is clear the character is supposed to be mocked for these moments, even the characters in the scene are noticeably uncomfortable in these moments, and while that argument has merit and one I’ve used in certain cases, here the jokes took me out of the film as you could feel Anderson pushing for a joke. In a film that feels like a cool breeze on a hot summer’s day, these moments are a splash of ice cold water to the face.

It is hard not to compare this film to Once Upon a time in Hollywood (2019) with the friendship of Anderson and Tarantino, both returning to the LA of their youth, showing both directors at the top of their craft and at their most open hearted. The pair of films also have an interesting aura of danger on the peripheries of the story, Manson in Hollywood and a collection of dangers in Licorice Pizza with Nixon, the oil crisis, and Jon Peters, that tint every moment of delight. Both filmmakers began their careers in the 90s full of ambition and aggressive masculine energy, but have mellowed in their age, allowing new stories to bloom as the pair enter a new phase of their lives.

Licorice Pizza is my favourite film of 2021, coming from a filmmaker that feels at his most comfortable while also being able to thrill in equal measure. Anderson is a writer and filmmaker like no other working today. He has created a 70s coming-of-age film with two of the most realised characters of recent American cinema history in Gary and Alana that will live on long in the memory of those that see it.

Licorice Pizza opens nationally from Friday the 24th of December 2021. 

Contributors

Darcy Read

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