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Film Review: Imperfect As It Is, “Licorice Pizza” Still Entertains

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 23rd, 2021

Film poster: “Licorice Pizza”

Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.

From the mind and camera of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread) comes a rambling, episodic narrative with many enjoyable moments that almost add up to something special. There are also other parts that try to use racist anti-Asian jokes in the service of edgy humor that fail miserably. And central to the premise is a would-be romantic relationship between a 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old woman that is giving at least some viewers pause. Its loose, seemingly improvisatory quality is both strength and weakness, and though I hardly endorse its placement at the top of awards lists, I did have a mostly good time watching.

The story begins in Los Angeles in 1973, where we meet high-schooler Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he makes the moves on the much older Alana (Alana Haim, of the musical trio Haim). She’s a photographer’s assistant helping to take class portraits; he’s a child actor whose film roles have given him an outsize confidence in his abilities and charm. Despite the inappropriateness of the flirtation, Alana still shows up that night on the date to which Gary invites her. But don’t worry, theirs will be an unconsummated union, though they do begin a very unlikely friendship often marked by jealousy when they each direct their affections elsewhere.

l-r: Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in LICORICE PIZZA ©United Artists Releasing

That’s the setup, though what follows is the mother of all shaggy-dog tales. Gary has many other interests beyond Alana, who is stuck at home and very much in stasis. Even as he outgrows the movie gigs, he pursues other ventures, the biggest of which is a waterbed business, through which he actually becomes Alana’s employer. She, meanwhile, tries her hand at acting, herself, which briefly throws her into the company of Hollywood types here played, in brief parts, by Sean Penn (Flag Day) and singer Tom Waits; Bradley Cooper (Nightmare Alley) also later makes a noted appearance.

Each bit plays out like a mini adventure (or misadventure), and some are quite fun. I especially like the end of the sequence starring Cooper (as Jon Peters), featuring a potentially out-of-control truck heading backwards down a hill. Others prove equally entertaining. In interviews, Anderson has explained that they bear a connection to the life of film producer Gary Goetzman, who either had quite the precocious adolescence or is just a great raconteur. None of that should matter, for what counts is what’s on screen, and often it’s delightful.

l-r: Sean Penn and Alana Haim in LICORICE PIZZA ©United Artists Releasing

But it’s also not, such as the scenes involving Jerry (John Michael Higgins, Almost Christmas), a friend of Gary’s family, who speaks easy-peasy-Japanesey to his various, subservient Japanese wives. Though clearly meant as a kind of satire, it’s never clear who or what the target is, and so just sits there, wallowing in obnoxious racism. If the film were about that, so be it. But it’s not, and Anderson does nothing but throw it out, adding nothing to the overall arc of the plot, such as it is.

Hoffman and Haim are both engaging, and despite the concerns of many, their interactions are never as creepy as one might fear. Still, one cannot help wonder what point their age difference really serves, especially since Anderson just treats it as an inconvenient obstacle. That much is obvious. It’s surprisingly not as jarring as the painful Japanese comedy, but I understand if it it’s too much for certain viewers.

Cooper Hoffman in LICORICE PIZZA ©United Artists Releasing

Beautifully designed and photographed, Licorice Pizza is as much homage to 1970s California as anything else. The title comes from a now-defunct chain of record stores that was in its heyday back then. View the movie as a nostalgic paean to the past, and to lost innocence, and it can work enticing magic. But the spell wears out, at times, and by the end we wonder what the point of it all was. Nevertheless, a yarn, however fuzzy, can still provide enough cinematic warmth to justify its existence. Wear it while you can and then discard.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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