Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, prodigal son of the late Philip Seymour) is a 15 year old student and part time actor with dreams of entrepreneurship. When he notices ’22’ (25) year old Alana Kane (Alana Haim of the eponymous family band) assisting with high school yearbook photos of his peers, he falls rather hard. We follow the saga of their not-quite relationship as they try to get the timing right while living out their youth in the most enviable decade of all time. Is it acceptable today to tell a love story between a minor and a grown-ass woman? “It was the 70s” is the answer, and in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, it miraculously isn’t an issue.
Hoffman’s Gary is based on Gary Goetzman, Anderson’s friend and a former child actor of the Lucille Ball era who really did start up a waterbed company and pinball arcade in his youth. Alana is an idea that came to Anderson in the early 2000s as he witnessed a male student on ‘picture day’ nagging an older female photographer to go out with him. As the director of several of Haim’s music videos, Anderson had Baby Haim in mind when writing the lead and he struck gold not just with her casting, but her entire immediate family. Starring alongside Haim are her actual sisters Este and Danielle, mother Donna and hilarious father Mordechai (or ‘Moti’). They act as a support network for Alana as she navigates the perils of stunted young womanhood, and of having a teenager in love with her without reciprocating his sentiments or ending up in jail.
The coming-of-age-ness of Licorice Pizza owes debts to Fast Times at Ridgemont High and American Graffiti (as confirmed by its director) and it’s clear that this is a very personal project for Anderson. The title refers to a chain of Californian record stores from Anderson’s youth that evoke a nostalgic feeling that the most ideal moments in our lives are in our past. We get the sense that nothing else in the world, including the Nixon age oil embargo that strands both the cars and the story in the San Fernando Valley, could possibly affect the lives of these young adults more than their interactions with each other. Even side plots, one of which hints at the mysterious or sinister as Alana gains a potential Travis Bickle who hangs outside the electoral office she volunteers at, stays in the shadows and we never get the satisfaction of knowing where it goes. There is a Linklater likeness in external factors not bearing much weight on the overall magnetism Gary and Alana have towards each other. It’s obvious things will work out for them by the end but sometimes they run with each other, towards each other and other times, in completely different directions.
Throughout the duration of the film, Gary and Alana are to each other: talent and chaperone, waterbed business partners and installers, dinner daters and professional runners. They develop a more than platonic but not in any way consummated marriage of sorts and their bickering only serves to deepen our feeling that they should be together, if it weren’t for that pesky age gap. Alana knows exactly what to say to reduce Gary to a little boy when she’s angry with him and Gary’s taunts about her age stoke the fires of insecurity in her that allow her to perpetually present herself as three years younger than she actually is. Alana is immature and Gary does not seem like a teenager, evidenced by his propensity to start up functioning businesses that service adult customers. But unlike Boogie Nights or Inherent Vice – Anderson’s other, more explicit love letters to the 70s – there is a complete and appropriate lack of sexuality in this film. It is a move that renders the relationship of his two protagonists more wholesome and oddly, more intimate.
This intimacy is echoed in Anderson’s own attachment to Californian icons, like Sean Penn’s Jack (William) Holden and Bradley Cooper’s Jon Peters – a former hairdresser turned Hollywood exec whose favourite pick-up line made it into the film. Legend has it that Peters was married to Pamela Anderson for 12 days and that he once got into a fight with Steven Seagal, and the way Cooper plays him makes these two tidbits (along with his general wildcard behaviour) very believable. There isn’t a weak link in the rest of the supporting cast either; Tom Waits’ gorgeously smoky silhouette entrance to a bar reeks of cool, and Skyler Gisondo (who has yet to disappoint me in any comedic role I’ve seen) as Gary’s castmate and romantic rival, Lance, is absolutely fantastic. The funniest scene in the film, featuring Harriet Sansom Harris as a Hollywood child talent agent fixated on Alana’s “very Jewish nose” while concurrently having bizarre telephone conversations with other stars, hints at the murky waters of casting but never gets too dark.
Such efforts from everyone around them make it even more important that Hoffman and Haim deliver. With the Thicc Boy confidence of his father oozing from his pores (and resulting in some endearingly persistent chin spots), Hoffman plays Gary with a teddy bear sweetness that rivals Lloyd Dobler. Straddling that fine line between boy and man, and matching Haim’s charisma, he’s the perfect counter to Alana’s neuroses. But it’s the lady herself who owns this film.
Alana is advised by Gary to always answer ‘yes’ when asked by casting agents if she can blank (speak Portuguese, ride a horse, shoot a gun while riding a horse). In a move that emulates her character’s supposed talents in auditioning for acting roles, Haim learned to drive a truck and really did reverse a gas-less one all the way down a winding Californian street. This is her (as well as Hoffman’s) film debut and it’s insane to think that someone with no prior experience (save from music videos) could deliver such a naturalistic and strong performance. It’s a testament to Anderson’s vision that he would hire two newbies to carry such a specific love story as much as it is to the work of the two young actors who portray his characters.
Anderson writes relationships (and the intricacies not often shown) beautifully. Anyone who, for one reason or another, has ever taken an infuriatingly long time to get together with someone (guilty) will connect deeply to the central relationship’s eventual happening. The embarrassing things we do to get someone to love us (from poisoning their tea to starting a waterbed company) and the songs we think belong to us are reflected very powerfully in Anderson’s films, and Licorice Pizza is no exception. I knew Wings’ Let Me Roll It was a banger (I was raised correctly) but to feel it in my throat as two people lie on a waterbed, not touching fingers but souls, made me feel for a moment like a blessed 70s youth.
The woman next to me, who I think actually was a 70s child, expressed a fatigue over the length of the film and indeed, not a whole lot actually happens in Licorice Pizza’s two-hour-and-a-bit run time that will please plot fiends, but I can’t say I wasn’t smitten for even one second. I can only conclude that this woman never ran through the streets with her 15 year old friends or left a hose running on the second storey of Barbra Streisand’s maniacal boyfriend’s house, and I am deeply sorry for her. For those who enjoyed their childhoods, Licorice Pizza will take you back, shout you a coke, and make you fall in love. 9/10
Licorice Pizza is out December 26.