Movie Review: Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth consecutive period film, named after a record store from the ’70s and derived from the appearance of vinyl records. The inspiration for Licorice Pizza happened some 20 years before the film’s release when the auteur spotted a teenage boy flirting with a female staff member. The moment sparked the thought of what would actually happen if the boy hazarded a date only for the staff member to call his bluff.

Loosely inspired by Fast Times at Ridgemont High and American Graffiti, Licorice Pizza is nostalgic throwback to young romance, entrepreneurship and the American Dream. Centred on an unlikely romance, the story revolves around two kids navigating first love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973. Besides having pinball unbanned in Los Angeles after it was considered a form of gambling in 1939, this was a time when water beds were all the rage. It’s a joy to revisit an era before the Internet, social media and personal devices took over, a time where people seemed to be doing more living. Seizing opportunities, living in the moment and trying to be cool, Licorice Pizza is an ode to the recklessness and potential of youth in a time where flyers and phone calls were still common business practices.

Licorice Pizza is buoyed by its charming young co-leads in Alana and Cooper, particularly Haim whose fascinating facial features and spirited performance compel and entertain. It’s refreshing to see so much confidence placed in its unknown leads, whose star-making performances are sculpted by a seasoned director. Having collaborated on five films with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and The Master, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched that he’d consider Hoffman’s son Cooper.

This inspired casting call came when he was struggling to find his leading man, reflecting an equally daring move to cast another debutant in Alana Haim. Paul Thomas Anderson gives Licorice Pizza a family vibration, not only casting familiar co-leads but getting their friends and family in on the picture with Haim’s family playing themselves. This move must have given his charming debutants a more comfortable and naturalistic atmosphere, allowing them to loosen up when playing opposite the likes of Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, Tom Waits and Bennie Safdie.

licorice pizza film

“How do we know if we’re jogging or running?”

This immersive coming-of-age comedy drama romance has the earmarks of a Richard Linklater film. Having directed Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!! and more recently Apollo 10 1/2, it seems that Anderson’s hang out movie has a number of parallels. Going for good vibrations and feel good energy, Anderson is more concerned with conjuring up mood, atmosphere and a zeitgeist over aligning his characters to a fixed or formulaic story line. Offering a much lighter outlook than some of his more complex and discordant films, Licorice Pizza celebrates the innocence of the time and simply touches on some darker themes without capsizing into them.

As much as he flirts with disaster, this drama skirts the edge and threatens to invoke the kind of darkness that characterises much of today’s entertainment but pulls up at the last minute. Dealing with show business and emerging trends of the age, the “will they, won’t they” romance serves as a constant tension as unrequited love and the maturation of an unlikely friendship take place. Taking his initial inspiration as the story’s kernel, it’s as if the contemporary great wants the characters to grow within this world he’s created and for them to determine their own fate. This makes Licorice Pizza a meandering adventure where plot takes a backseat to character, good-natured fun and hang out vibes. As such, the film weaves in and out of jobs and ventures as the romantically-entangled friends become business partners to further complicate matters.

Anderson opted to make this throwback as authentic as possible, choosing to finish the film photochemically instead of going through a digital intermediate. This commitment is expressed in the throwback’s recollection of the early ’70s, by way of accurate production design and values. Setting the scene, it’s further entrenched by a thick layer of authenticity carried forth by unmodulated hairstyles and wardrobe with Safdie’s look for Joel Wachs inspired by Harvey Milk. Many filmmakers would tone down some of the more jarring fashion sensibilities for greater accessibility and identification but Anderson retains this awkward essence to embroider Licorice Pizza’s charm and innocence.

While Licorice Pizza was halted by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, it serves as just the tonic for those feeling disillusioned by the here and now of the after-effects. Harking back to a time before technology ruled our lives, this good-natured picture is a joyous, nostalgic and slow-burning summer-autumn tour of the San Fernando Valley in 1973. The goofball characters are charming and talented enough to root for as one of Hollywood’s true visionaries unfurls a captivating and entertaining coming-of-age comedy romance drama.

The bottom line: Nostalgic