In ‘Licorice Pizza’, Adulthood Is One Big Charade
Alana Haim's incredible debut performance holds together 'Licorice Pizza' - but the film suffers from some big missteps.
Of all the sights and sensations bursting from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, the most definitive is also the film’s most straightforward: young people running as fast as their bodies will let them.
— Warning: Minor Licorice Pizza spoilers ahead. —
Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) run after, towards, and alongside each other with such frequency that they appear constantly engaged in some breathless lurch.
The motif is somewhat overplayed, yet its sense of boundlessness commands Anderson’s loosely plotted ode to the San Fernando Valley of his childhood. Set in 1973, the film traces the burgeoning relationship between Gary, a 15-year-old ‘showman’ and supposed businessman, and Alana, a mid-twenties woman whom we first meet as a photographer’s assistant at Gary’s high school picture day.
Gary is immediately smitten with Alana. He does his darndest to win over the taunting, largely unimpressed older woman of his affections, extending a dinner invitation that is initially left hanging, then later accepted with Alana’s hesitant presence at the restaurant and a warning: ‘Don’t be creepy.’
Their unlikely connection blooms into a tumultuous friendship and flirty business partnership with the pair embarking on a variety of schemes, including a mildly successful waterbed business loosely based on the experiences of Anderson’s real-life friend, producer and former child actor Gary Goetzman. It’s a hangout film that isn’t quite a coming-of-age flick or rom-com, yet rifles through and plays with both genres at will.
One Of The Year’s Best Debuts
With Licorice Pizza, Anderson relaxes the precise formalism of his previous works, sketching a dreamy, fluctuating world of youthful impulse. The narrative loosely unfolds through various vignettes, the camera coasting through an amalgamated landscape of recollection and fiction. This more meandering approach echoes the characters’ restlessness while they experiment with their own sense of purpose, trying on new personas that may or may not stick.
Take the good-naturedly ambitious Gary, played by Hoffman (son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) with incredible self-possession. He employs his mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) at his own publicity firm, using an overly polished speaking voice to shield against his own innocence. He’s even a mildly successful child actor, evidenced by an early vignette involving a New York publicity tour for a project headed by a Lucille Ball-type (Christine Ebersole), which Alana attends as chaperone.
Though it’s reasonable to approach the central relationship with a certain level of incredulity — what makes a hot, interesting adult woman so bizarrely compelled by a teenager? — Gary’s a young man overflowing with possibility and agency, two traits Alana struggles to identify within herself.
Haim portrays this aimlessness with immense dynamism and humour in one of the year’s best debut performances, intuitive in the way the film needs her to be without letting audiences get too close to her inner world. Alana tends to her disillusionment with half-hearted career pivots and dalliances with various men, all to try and prove something, or at least get her out of Encino. The character’s so explosive, in fact, that the film can’t quite keep up with her or sufficiently conceive of her desires.
Alana’s unsure what she wants, a fact made clear during the pair’s first so-called ‘date’. Gary asks what her plans are, what she’s interested in, and the answers are, invariably, who knows? She lives at home with her siblings and parents, all amusingly portrayed by her real-life family. Contrarily, Gary has outlined his own goals a little too clearly, such that his efforts at maturity manage to circle back to naivety. ‘That’s a lot,’ Alana observes.
As a plot point involving the early ‘70s oil crisis reveals, Gary’s charisma and entrepreneurialism fail to translate into worldliness. He’s more concerned with whatever his next venture is than real-world events or politics. Their oddball dynamic works because Alana is unwilling to buy completely into Gary’s shtick, no matter how effective his charms. Without her, Gary risks getting caught up in his own charade.
In-Between Adolescence And Adulthood
With its leads’ various endeavours, Licorice Pizza details how strange it feels to occupy the in-between space of adolescence and adulthood. The most juvenile thing you can do is try too hard to be mature, yet the conventional markers of maturity don’t bring many answers, either. Alana takes her first truly ‘adult’ step by volunteering for local electoral candidate Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), but in a later argument with Gary her more immature urges arise: she argues about who’s the cooler of the two, and as if to establish herself as the bigger grownup, states, ‘I’m a politician!’ (she’s not).
The most juvenile thing you can do is try too hard to be mature, yet the conventional markers of maturity don’t bring many answers, either.
Licorice Pizza’s three big-name cameos further muddy the lines between juvenilia and adulthood. Bradley Cooper appears in an immediately iconic performance as Hollywood producer Jon Peters, a customer of the gang’s waterbed empire. Sean Penn shows up as actor Jack Holden (loosely based on William Holden), a man more concerned with his own Hollywood mythology than the seduction he attempts with Alana. There’s also Tom Waits, gravelly-voiced as fictional film director Rex Blau.
If the film were more strictly plotted these cameo sequences might feel like digressions, but here they usefully expand Gary and Alana’s world by digging into the pretence of adulthood. The characters’ ridiculous commitments to showmanship take precedence over everything else; to them, Alana is little more than a conquest, a small piece in the display they make of themselves, alienating her further from grown-up realities.
That they’re all showbiz figures is not incidental: Anderson’s vision of The Valley is enmeshed with the business of movies as he grew up loving it. Yet the film’s nostalgia doesn’t make it totally devoid of criticism. Moments of casual sexual harassment and a secret held by Safdie’s character are reminders that the ‘good old days’ were not mere harmless reverie. Unfortunately, attempts to condemn the racism of the era with a harsh running gag about a foolish white man speaking mock Japanese plays so crudely and pointlessly it’s unclear who exactly the joke is meant to be on.
It’s the film’s most glaring misstep in a story otherwise brimming with charm. Where many of Anderson’s previous films depict characters with a great degree of knotty internal torment, Licorice Pizza revels in its own levity. There’s an intoxicating warmth and haziness to the events that make it easy to sit in, with a well-curated soundtrack of ‘70s hits and truly absorbing set pieces.
But if the film struggles to properly accommodate Haim’s aching allure as Alana, this is no clearer than when it rushes towards its ending. After unspooling over a series of episodic fragments, the narrative can’t quite gather the central pair back up into a fitting conclusion. Anderson opts for the overtly sentimental route, giving Gary and Alana an ending almost too romantic for their ambiguous, fluttering, slightly perverse connection.
Despite familiar coming-of-age tropes like first love and existential angst, Licorice Pizza is less interested in sweeping character arcs than youth-as-mood, memories inextricable from the spaces that help form them. ‘I’m not going to forget you,’ Gary asserts the second time he meets Alana, ‘just like you’re not going to forget me.’ It seems, in the moment, like the naïve optimism of a kid caught up in his own romantic projections.
But he turns out to be right: Gary and Alana find in each other someone who alternately challenges and believes in them, a mix of tenderness and magnetic frenzy. If someone gives your life a sense of definition and meaning, just by the pure fact of being there, wouldn’t you also hold onto that?
Tiia Kelly is a freelance film writer from Melbourne with bylines in The Guardian, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue, Overland, Screen Queens, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter.