Nothing else matters when you’re in love. People come and go, jobs come and go, the world turns, but none of that sticks. Not that you’re oblivious to such things, it’s just that they all take a backseat to the person right in front of you. And for Gary Valentine, that person is Alana Kane.
They meet at high school. Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is 15 and having his yearbook pictures taken. Alana (Alana Haim of the band Haim) is 25 and works for the company taking the pictures. Gary is a child actor and a born hustler. He charms Alana, even if her shell seems impenetrable. It’s a great meet-cute, the camera tracking and swirling around Gary and Alana, intoxicated by young love. They part knowing this will go somewhere special. Us, sitting in the audience watching, suspect the same. And then one of the photographers, a middle-aged man, pauses while taking a photo, reaches around, and slaps Alana on the ass while she walks by. His smile says everything you need to know about him. Her face says everything you need to know about her. Their interaction says everything you need to know about gender dynamics in the 1970s.
All the men in Licorice Pizza, the latest from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, are louses, save for Gary, and Alana’s father, Mordechai Haim—Alana’s father in real life. Her real-life mother plays her mother in the movie, and her two older sisters, Danielle and Este, play her older sisters. I don’t know if it’s restraint on Anderson’s part or a missed opportunity that none of them launch into song. The real-life Haims grew up in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley in the 1990s. Anderson also grew up in the Valley, albeit in the 1970s, which is when Licorice Pizza is set, specifically Encino against the backdrop of the ’73 Oil Embargo. None of those details really matter to the movie; I just thought you’d like to know.
What does matter is that slap on Alana’s backside. It’s a reminder that no matter how idyllic the past looks from today’s vantage, danger lurked in the daylight. And when Alana isn’t being harassed, she’s being marginalized. When actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn) takes her out on a date, he can’t help but recount the Korean War for her, regardless of how little she wants to hear about it. And when Holden’s former director and present drinking buddy, Rex Blau (Tom Waits), shows up at the restaurant—The Tail o’ the Cock, a real Studio City haunt with a name that does double duty here—the two men push her aside to relive their glory macho days. The scene culminates with a fully loaded Holden jumping a motorcycle over a pile of burning wingback chairs on the eighth green of a golf course. All Alana wanted was to make Gary jealous by going for cocktails with an older man. Now she’s wrapped up in this.
Licorice Pizza is a compilation of such scenes, vignettes that connect somewhat loosely but make perfect sense. The connections work because Gary and Alana make them work. Because what matters is them: Not daredevil stunts, oil embargos and fights at the pump, waterbeds, legalized pinball machines, Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend (a magnificently unhinged Bradley Cooper), even the local city council election. All those things come and go—even the creep in a number 12 shirt haunting the movie’s perimeter.
The creep’s sudden presence ruptures the film’s warm atmosphere. The scene is almost shot for shot, line for line, lifted from Taxi Driver. Yet, Anderson makes it feel new. Coming-of-age movies, movies set in the ’70s, movies set in Los Angeles are all well-tread territory. But, again, Anderson makes it all feel new. How? By shattering the form completely. Remember that old Anton Chekhov edict: Any gun brought on stage in the first act must go off in the third? Anderson disagrees. There’s a lot in Licorice Pizza that is introduced and never resolved or explained, including the title—it’s the name of a long-gone record store—but none of that matters. What matters are Gary and Alana. Together, they are strong enough to make the rest of the world fall away.
Licorice Pizza (2021)
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, Sara Murphy, Adam Somner
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Benny Safdie, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Este Haim, Danielle Haim, Donna Haim, Moti Haim
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Rated R, Running time 133 minutes, Opened in limited released on Nov. 29, 2021; everywhere Dec. 25, 2021.