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Stuck in the ‘70s: “Licorice Pizza” review

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Promotional poster for “Licorice Pizza” (2021). Used for identification Purposes.

Licorice Pizza was the music hangout spot in Southern California in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and even featured the occasional celebrity shopper. The record store’s former employees and patrons are often quoted as reminiscing about the conversations, cold beers and the far out ‘70s grooviness of Southern California during that time (1).
What an apt title for director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film “Licorice Pizza.” While pizza, licorice or a recreated Licorice Pizza record store do not appear in the movie, its spirit of innocence, joyfulness and camaraderie are continually present in this unlikely story of generational love.
The story follows the flirtatious and sometimes volatile friendship between 25-year-old photography assistant Alana Kane, played by Alana Haim, and 15-year-old child actor and budding entrepreneur Gary Valentine, played by Cooper Hoffman. The friendship, and at times romance, between the two is an adventurous topic to tackle in a movie.
The dwindling child actor Gary tries to appear older beyond his years while Alana is grappling with appearing younger than hers, still living with her overachieving sisters at home. Both see something in the other that they desire: maturity for Gary and success for Alana. Alana always insists that Gary is only her friend but Alana slowly gives in to the romance that Gary is so desperately pushing for.
The romance between an adolescent and a young adult in a film requires delicate insightfulness that risks stooping to impertinence. Paul Thomas Anderson finds that insightfulness through the regrets and ambitions of Alana as a result of her deep friendship with Gary. Disappointingly, he fails to fully mature Gary’s childish nature to satisfyingly reflect the growth of their relationship.
It was a big gamble for Paul Thomas Anderson to give the two starring roles to actors who have never appeared in movies or television. It’s especially risky considering how personal Anderson’s project, set near his hometown in the San Fernando Valley, seems to be. With Hoffman’s familial acting background and Haim’s undeniable entertainment success, the decision paid off.
Alana Haim, a percussionist for the wildly successful band HAIM—composed of Alana and her two sisters, who all appear in “Licorice Pizza”—makes a stunning movie debut as a believable and vulnerable character which creates a lasting empathy for the audience. Cooper Hoffman, son of the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, also makes an admirable debut that will hopefully lead him to more projects where his talent can be matured and developed.
The fitting music selection for “Licorice Pizza” is one of its strongest attributes next to the wonderful performance of Alana Haim. Nostalgic ‘70s jams like “Life on Mars?” by David Bowie and “Peace Frog” by The Doors will excite UMass Boston music lovers.
Seasoned actors Sean Penn, Tom Waits and Bradley Cooper offer strong supporting roles that are undeniably authentic, wrapped in the pervasive sleaziness of the ‘70s. They make the indiscretions of Alana and Gary seem childish in comparison to Penn, Waits and Cooper’s arrogance, each tainted with fame.
“Licorice Pizza” is a unique and at times uncomfortable love story that manages to expose the insecurities that UMass Boston students and faculty have all experienced as we age. We all fear appearing too childish, regretting a foolish decision, or misreading a relationship. It magnifies same-sex love, corruption, a gas crisis, sexual harassment and drug use in a lost L.A. that ended by 1980. Paul Thomas Anderson successfully brings us back to that lost world propped behind a compelling and confusing relationship that most viewers can identify with. It is not Anderson’s best, but the freewheeling emotion of the film is an enjoyable watch. The movie is still playing in theaters and should be available to purchase and rent in a few months.
(1) https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/licorice-pizza-film-title-explained