Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has had one of the more eclectic careers in Hollywood, making movies about everything from the 1970s porn industry to an oil baron to a fastidious dress maker. The majority of his films have been set in or around the Los Angeles area, a location to which he returns again with Licorice Pizza.
The ‘70s-set film centers on Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old whose self-confidence and ambitions are not commensurate with his age. He meets Alana (Alana Haim), a 25-year-old photographer’s assistant, at the beginning of the film on school picture day, and almost right away he develops a major crush on her.
Gary is an actor/entrepreneur whose agent mom (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) provides only scant supervision. Gary soon convinces Alana to be everything from a chaperone on an acting trip to a coworker in a startup waterbed business, all the while hoping against hope that she will give in to his age-inappropriate romantic desires.
The film, whose name derives from a defunct L.A. record shop chain that is strangely not referenced in the story, is weird yet approachable. Why exactly Gary has his hands in so many different pies and how he has the means to do so is never fully explained, but he’s such an affable and charming character that it’s easy to follow him wherever he wants to go.
Likewise, Alana is someone whose wanderlust takes her in many different directions, including a fling with one of Gary’s co-stars, Lance (Skyler Gisondo) and a stint as a volunteer in the mayoral campaign of Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). Even when you’re questioning her decisions, she remains someone for whom it’s easy to root.
Even for Anderson, the goal of the film is a bit of a mystery. Gary and Alana’s various adventures seemingly have no point, but they also intersect with some real-life figures, including Wachs (an L.A. city councilman who first ran for mayor in 1973) and Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), a hairdresser-turned-producer who was in a relationship with Barbara Streisand from 1973 to 1982.
Almost as interesting as the film is the actors Anderson chose to include. The casting of Haim may seem odd until you look at Anderson’s filmography and realize he’s directed no fewer than nine music videos for Haim, the pop rock band featuring Alana and her sisters (who, along with their parents, play Alana’s family in the film).
He also seems to have a thing for Hollywood families, as the film features Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), two of Steven Spielberg’s daughters, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s father. That’s not to mention cameos by Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s wife), Sean Penn, Tom Waits, John C. Reilly, and, in an oddly racist role, John Michael Higgins.
Licorice Pizza comes off as more of a lark than most of Anderson’s films, but because he has a unique approach to filmmaking, it’s also more interesting than maybe it has a right to be. It’s a coming-of-age story as only Anderson can tell it, one that fits right in with the rest of his filmography.
Licorice Pizza opens in theaters on December 25.