By Greg Carlson
Since his big-screen debut in 1996, Paul Thomas Anderson has made a series of rewarding movies as identifiable by their director’s gift for dazzling cinematics as they are by bravura performances and exhilarating ensembles. Anderson has noted that there is nothing quite as exciting as watching a movie star at work, but unknown actors bring an altogether different kind of energy to the mix. In his ninth feature film, “Licorice Pizza,” the filmmaker directs newcomers Alana Haim (of the sister pop/rock trio Haim) and Cooper Hoffman (son of Anderson’s longtime collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman) in an Andersonian mashup that merges San Fernando Valley fact and Hollywood fiction.
The early 1970s time period and location draw favorable comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which takes place four years prior to the events of “Licorice Pizza.” Both movies warp and bend nostalgia-infused fantasy with fancifully augmented depictions of celebrities whose lives intersect with the protagonists. Both movies rejoice in the perfectly placed needle-drops of carefully curated songs emanating from car speakers and transistor radios. Both movies nail the anything-is-possible look and feel of Southern California dreaming.
Hoffman’s Gary Valentine, whose exploits are based in part on the tales of producer Gary Goetzman, is as precocious and entrepreneurial as fellow fifteen-year-old Max Fischer in “Rushmore” (he also brings to mind Tom “The Great Brain” Fitzgerald). Despite the stylistic differences between the imagined worlds of the two Andersons, Valentine and Fischer develop serious crushes on older women, cook up all manner of fake-it-til-you-make-it schemes, see the world not necessarily as it is but how they want it to be, and navigate the liminal state between childhood and adulthood with the support of single parents.
The big difference, however, is that “Licorice Pizza” belongs as much – or more – to Haim’s Alana Kane, the rudderless and restless young woman who captivates Gary when they meet on yearbook picture day at his high school (she’s working as a photographer’s assistant). Anderson recognizes the age-inappropriate obstacle of the potential romance. Much of Alana’s push-pull attraction/repulsion toward Gary revolves around her recognition of their decade gap. But no matter how she tries to leave the teenager’s orbit – in one of the film’s many side trips she volunteers for real life L.A. city council member Joel Wachs’s campaign – she realizes that she has found a kindred spirit.
Their friendship courses through a warm-hearted array of offbeat anecdotes that ultimately strengthen their takes-one-to-know-one bond. In one terrific sequence, they deliver and set up a waterbed for hairdresser turned movie mogul (and Barbra Streisand beau) Jon Peters, played by Bradley Cooper in a livewire, scene-stealing turn. In another, Sean Penn materializes as a William Holden surrogate who, not unlike Peters, tests Alana’s receptiveness to his predatory creep game and not-so-veiled come-ons. Penn, gunning a motorcycle near hangout Tail o’ the Cock, lets rip the speed and motion that Gary and Alana demonstrate more regularly on foot. They run with intensity and purpose, racing headlong in the direction of endless possibility.
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