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Review: 'Licorice Pizza'

Licorice Pizza is not about pizza. It is not about pizza with licorice topping.

It’s a strange title for a slightly strange, but hugely entertaining contemporary teen romance.

For the record, Licorice Pizza was the name of a Southern California record store back in 1973, where the story takes place. LP records, for those who remember them, did resemble a pizza made out of black licorice.

It’s a weird title for a movie that isn’t about pizzas or LP records, but it’s probably as good a title as any for a movie that largely defies categorization or description.

It’s the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson, whose work includes: Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999) Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and There Will Be Blood (2007).

He’s a talented writer/director drawn into filmmaking at a very young age.

With Licorice Pizza, he’s returning to the scene of the crime as it were in Boogie Nights.

There is a lot of story material to mine from that time and place. It was a colorful chapter in contemporary American History -- the San Fernando Valley in 1973.

It’s the story of Gary played by Cooper Hoffman, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son.

The elder Hoffman appeared in several of Anderson’s films, including Boogie Nights. Cooper bears more than a passing resemblance to his famous dad.

His character Gary is a 15-year-old high school student who has enjoyed some success as a teen actor. He’s nowhere near famous, but he has talent and a few credits on his resume.

He is brimming with energy, ambition and the raging hormones of a typical teenage male on the hunt for his first girlfriend.

As is always the case in great comedy/romances, he meets her early in the first reel. Her name is Alana. She is a photo assistant prepping students for their class photos.

For Gary, it’s love at first sight. Despite the fact that she’s ten years older than him and vows that she would never, ever go out on a date with someone like him.

There is a screwball comedy element going on here in which two, mismatched people eventually fall in love despite all odds. We’ve seen it again and again in the movies. But when it’s done right, it works.

Consider the first movie ever to be called a screwball comedy, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night(1934). Take into consideration for instance the success of Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc made 38 years later, and you can see my point. This schtick never gets old.

Before going much further, I want to mention that the trailers for Licorice Pizza really didn’t grab me the way most movie trailers do, starting with the lead actors who just didn’t possess the movie star faces we’ve become accustomed to seeing over the years.

They were both (forgive me) surprisingly average-looking, like real people, pimples, blemishes, greasy hair and all. I was reminded of Napoleon Dynamite (2004) a low-budget comedy with average looking young actors that eventually conquered the world of film buffs who couldn’t seem to see the film enough times. I confess, I am one of them.

Licorice Pizza has that kind of freshness and charm. This may not be the best-looking lead couple you’ve ever seen, but by the end of the film you are invested in their lives and rooting for them to fall in love, despite the proverbial long and winding road they have to travel to get there.

The more you watch them the more you accept them and like them. They become less and less ordinary and plain. You discover their own unique beauty and charm.

From a writing standpoint, Licorice Pizza seems heavily influenced by the work of Robert Altman. It has a loose story structure that is dependent to some degree on spontaneity and improvisation. That kind of movie requires a light but firm directorial touch and a lot of faith in your leads.

In this case, a lot is riding on Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim. The movie marks Cooper Hoffman’s first starring role. Luckily, he’s a chip off the old block in terms of his style and approach.

He looks 15. Yet he has the burning passion of a teen entrepreneur who is willing to cash in on the fad popularity of water beds, the rental of bicycles during a gasoline shortage—or whatever it takes to get rich quick and somehow win Alana’s heart.

The waterbed scheme brings him in touch with Barbra Streisand’s famous boyfriend Jon Peters, played by Bradley Cooper. While the movie is loosely autobiographical, it is not based on Paul Thomas Anderson’s experiences, rather on the life of one of Anderson’s friends. The Jon Peters encounter allegedly actually happened.

Gary’s encounter with the Jon Peter’s character is memorable. It spins off into a crazy chain reaction of nocturnal events reminiscent of Martin Scorese’s After Hours (1985).

Gary’s infatuation with Alana leads to a scene in which he introduces her to his talent agent, advising her to just say yes to anything she’s asked relating to her acting background or range of talents. The unexpected question of whether she would agree to appear topless underscores Gary’s well-intentioned but woefully bad advice. His blustering bravado backfires right before his eyes, leading to a major rift during the car ride home.

Alana Haim plays Alana, who is on her own personal journey of discovery and escape from her sisters and strict Jewish parents (played by Alana Haim’s real parents and siblings). Haim is a formidable young actress whose talents spill into the world of pop music. She and two of her sisters perform as the band HAIM. They’re quite good.

Her screen character is complex and unpredictable. Gary and Alana are on parallel storylines that we hope will somehow connect in the final reel.

Along the way there are many surprises and funny moments. One in particular when Gary tries to coach Alana on how to sell waterbeds over the phone. He suggests that she should be sexier, and in a hilarious sequence, the flips the switch and cranks up the phone sex heat to a smolderingly suggestive level, much to Gary’s jaw-dropping shock and dismay. It’s priceless.

Licorice Pizza is one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s best films. What makes it remarkable is that it involves a scattershot kind of plot entirely dependent on the talent and chemistry of two virtually unknown lead actors.

It reflects Anderson’s courage to break rules and defy expectations. And his ability to craft a very funny, contemporary romantic comedy in the process.


Licorice Pizza is in select theaters now.

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