Written, directed, and co-shot by Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza is a coming-of-age story about a child actor in his mid-teens who falls for a young woman in her mid-20s as they deal with growing pains and other things in the San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s. The film is look into the life of a young man and a young woman as they meet an assortment of characters in that time as they also deal with themselves and other things during a tumultuous time in California. Starring Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Benny Safdie, and Bradley Cooper. Licorice Pizza is a rapturous and exhilarating film from Paul Thomas Anderson.
Set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973, the film revolves around the relationship of a 15-year old child actor who meets a 25-year old woman at a yearbook photo shoot as they become friends and business partners through many ventures as they also encounter many misadventures and an assortment of characters during their journey. It is a film that is partially based on the real-life story of film producer Gary Goetzman who was a child actor in real life as well as being a young businessman where Paul Thomas Anderson uses Goetzman’s story to not just explore a young man dealing with growing pains and first love but also a young woman trying to find herself. Anderson’s screenplay is largely straightforward as it follows the many misadventures of the 15-year old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and the 25-year old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) who meet each other at the former’s high school for a yearbook photoshoot that the latter is working at.
The two take a liking to each other with Kane chaperoning Valentine for a show in New York City as well as assist him on some business ventures he has ideas for as the first one involves selling waterbeds. Yet, Kane being an adult and Valentine being immature causes tension with Valentine takes interest in other girls including Kane while he would take her to acting auditions as she is opening to doing nude scenes which upsets Valentine. The script doesn’t just play into the relationship but also their encounters with famous people and such during that period including an aging film star in Jack Holden (Sean Penn), a crazy filmmaker in Rex Blau (Tom Waits), the film producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), and the politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) as they’re all based on real people with Peters and Wachs actually being real people. These encounters as well as the ambitions they have would also play into their own growing pains with Valentine being really naïve about his views of the world while Kane becomes aware of the gas crisis of that year that would majorly affect Valentine’s waterbed business.
Anderson’s direction is definitely stylish in the way he portrays the San Fernando Valley and its many areas as they are characters in the film yet it is a look at a time when things were simpler but also crazy. Shot on location in Encino, California with locations shot in and around areas in the San Fernando Valley, Anderson definitely uses a lot of wide and medium shots to get a scope of these locations while shooting in either actual locations of some restaurants or in places that were once there but have been recreated to capture that period that is the early 1970s. There is also an intimacy in Anderson’s direction where he does use close-ups whether it is to play into a character’s face or to play into the desire of a character such as a scene where Kane and Valentine are lying on a waterbed where the latter is looking at Kane and is thinking about doing something that she wouldn’t approve of as she is sleeping.
There are also scenes that do play into the culture including meetings with the owner of a Japanese sushi restaurant in Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins) who would often talk to his wife in a bad Japanese accent to speak English to whomever he was married to at the time as Anderson definitely focuses on that man’s wife to show her discomfort. With co-cinematographer Michael Bauman, Anderson shoots the film on 35mm with camera lenses dating back to the 1970s to create this feel of the 1970s as there are a lot of colors for and grain for much of the scenes set at night outside including moments where there are little lighting in the film. Notably in some of the tracking shots he creates as it play into the atmosphere of some of the places the characters go to. Anderson definitely showcase this air of reality into the gas crisis of 1973 as everyone is affected including someone like Jon Peters who was then the boyfriend of Barbra Streisand as he’s just fucking insane. There are also a lot of these things as it relates to Kane and Valentine’s relationship where it is taboo considering that the latter is a minor yet he’s the one that is pining for the former who is aware that the idea of them having a relationship is wrong yet she also has feelings for him.
The film’s third act definitely play into the flaws of their relationship as it relates to the world of politics which Kane is interested in yet Valentine isn’t in favor of wanting to do something else that involves money. It doesn’t just show the interests of young people but also two people who are forced to face reality about the worlds they’re in as it proves that they need each other. Even as they realize that they’re still young as they live in a world that is ever-changing with adults who don’t have their shit together. Overall, Anderson crafts a majestic yet intoxicating film about two young people trying to find themselves in the San Fernando Valley in 1973.
Editor Andy Jurgensen does excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward with a few rhythmic cuts and a few montages that play into memories or ideas the protagonists have. Production designer Florencia Martin, with set decorator Ryan Watson and art director Samantha Englender, does amazing work with the look of some of the restaurants the characters go to as well as a gathering where a bunch of kids try to sell things and other stuff. Costume designer Mark Bridges does brilliant work with the costumes from the casual clothes some of the characters wear including jeans and shirts as well as some of the stylish clothes that both Kane and Valentine wear. Hair designer Lori Guidrox and makeup designer Heba Thorisdottir do fantastic work with the look of the characters including Jon Peters with his stylish hair as it play into his over-the-top persona.
Special effects supervisor Elia P. Popov and visual effects supervisor Laura J. Hill do nice work with some of the visual effects which is largely set dressing for some exterior scenes as well as a major scene involving a motorcycle stunt. Sound editors David Acord and Christopher Scarabosio do superb work with the sound as it play into the atmosphere of the locations as well as the way certain things sound from afar. The film’s music by Jonny Greenwood is incredible for its low-key orchestral based score that is used sparingly that also include covers of a few songs while music supervisor Linda Cohen creates a music soundtrack that features an array of music from the 60s and 70s that include David Bowie, Sonny & Cher, the Doors, Gordon Lightfoot, Todd Rundgren, Nina Simone, Suzi Quatro & Chris Norman, Chuck Berry with the Steve Miller Band, Paul McCartney and Wings, Seals and Croft, Donovan with the Jeff Beck Group, the James Gang, Blood, Sweat, & Tears, Taj Mahal, Mason Williams, the Congregation, Chico Hamilton Quintet with Buddy Collette, and Clarence Carter.
The casting by Cassandra Kulukundis is marvelous as it feature appearances and cameos from John C. Reilly as Fred Gwynne playing Herman Munster at a convention, Ryan Heffington as Peters’ assistant Steve who really works for Barbra Streisand, Emma Dumont as a stewardess named Brenda, Milo Herschlag as Valentine’s younger brother Greg, James Kelley as a fellow child actor in Tim, Tim Conway Jr. as a casting director, Maya Rudolph as the casting director’s assistant Gale, Destry Allyn Spielberg as a Japanese restaurant waitress who had a fling with Valentine, Isabelle Kusman as a young girl named Sue Valentine meets at the opening of his waterbed shop, Iyana Halley as a wig shop clerk, George DiCaprio (Leonardo’s dad) as a wig shop owner who introduces Valentine to the waterbed, Jon Beavers as a creepy guy late in the film, Nate Mann as a political volunteer that Kane befriends, Joseph Cross as Wachs’ dinner guest, Yumi Mizui and Megumi Anjo as Frick’s Japanese wives whom he speaks in a bad Japanese accent towards them, Ray Chase as the KMET radio deejay B. Mitchell Reed, Mary Elizabeth Ellis as Valentine’s mother who manages his career, and Skyler Gisondo as a child actor in Lance whom Alana briefly dates until an awkward dinner with her family.
The performances of Moti Haim, Donna Haim, Este Haim, and Danielle Haim in their respective roles as Kane’s parents and Kane’s older sisters are fun to watch with Moti being the cantankerous father who often spouts profanity. Harriet Sansom Harris is fantastic in her one-scene performance as Valentine’s agent Mary Grady who interviews Alana as a favor for Valentine where she takes a liking to her. John Michael Higgins is terrific as the Mikado Restaurant owner Jerry Frick who does business with Valentine often talks to his Japanese wives in a racist accent that often brings a look of discomfort to whomever he is married to. Christine Ebersole is superb as Lucy Doolittle as a major TV star that is inspired by Lucille Ball who makes an appearance at a show in New York City where she definitely has issues with Valentine who humiliates her on TV as she wanted to kill him. Benny Safdie is excellent as the real-life politician Joel Wachs as a man filled with ideals that appeal to Kane yet is someone that has secrets of his own which were taboo at that time.
Tom Waits is brilliant as Rex Blau as a filmmaker based on Mark Robson who is a friend of Jack Holden as he would help stage a stunt that Holden used to do where Waits brings that sense of charisma and command as a man who knows how to get people’s attention. Bradley Cooper is incredible in an over-the-top yet spot-on performance as the famed film producer Jon Peters who was then Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend/hairdresser as a figure of masculinity who threatens Valentine on the job he is to do while also being a buffoon of sorts who is just trying to be cool. Sean Penn is amazing as Jack Holden as an aging film actor based on William Holden who does an audition with Kane and tries to get her to take part in a stunt that he did in a film with Blau as Penn does bring that sense of old Hollywood that clashes with the New Hollywood that was happening at the time.
Finally, there’s the duo of Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in tremendous debut performances in their respective roles of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine. Haim’s performance is full of energy as a young woman that is still trying to find herself where she would aid Valentine in a bunch of things where she is put into humiliating situations while reminds herself that he’s still a kid. Hoffman’s performance also exudes energy as someone who is enthusiastic and has a lot of charm to get what he wants but is still a teenager who is indifferent to the realities of the world of around him as he has trouble coping with that reality whenever he fails. Haim and Hoffman together are a joy to watch in not just the chemistry they have but also in the mixture of humor and drama they bring to their roles and the situations they’re in as they are a major highlight of the film.
Licorice Pizza is a magnificent film from Paul Thomas Anderson that features great leading break-out performances from Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. Along with its supporting ensemble cast, exploration of growing pains, dazzling visuals, offbeat humor, and a sumptuous music soundtrack. The film is a fascinating coming-of-age story that play into the relationship of two young people who are both trying to find themselves during a crazy year in the San Fernando Valley while encountering people and worlds that are strange and entrancing. In the end, Licorice Pizza is an outstanding film from Paul Thomas Anderson.
P.T. Anderson Films: Hard Eight/Sydney - Boogie Nights - Magnolia - Punch-Drunk Love - There Will Be Blood - The Master (2012 film) - Inherent Vice - Junun - Phantom Thread
Related: The Shorts & Videos of P.T. Anderson - The Auteurs #15: Paul Thomas Anderson
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