Film Review: Licorice Pizza is joyously subversive look on nostalgia; led by a star-making performance by Alana Haim

Licorice Pizza

Set in 1973 San Fernando Valley, California. Licorice Pizza tells the story of Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a TV show actor and high schooler who is smitten with the school photographer/volunteer Alana Kane (Alana Haim). The two are aware of the elephant in the room in terms of them being together; being the vast 10-year age difference.

The two traverse the rituals of life like starting a business selling the latest craze like waterbeds and pinball machines while going through strange situations like oil embargoes due to the gas crisis, making transportation extremely difficult. And while there may be fun and games for the two, the bigger, darker picture of the world they live in starts to seep through, which shapes Gary and Alana in different and alarming ways.

Licorice Pizza is the latest film by acclaimed filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. His films have always been distinct in terms of intent and filmmaking. They have also garnered many accolades for the assured sense of storytelling, fantastic performances and a general sense of surprise that diverts away from their simple premises. But the main thing that Anderson never does is make the same film twice, so we can never truly know what to expect, especially with Licorice Pizza.

There has been some discourse over the content of the film regarding issues involving racism and underage relationships before its public release. Aside from the main relationship, a major moment involves a character Jerry Frick (who is based on a real person) adopting an offensive accent in order to cater to an Asian demographic to establish a restaurant (which becomes The Mikado). While those who have seen the film are valid in their observations, it must be said that we need to establish the context of the film in play.

One thing that is noticeable about the storytelling is that Anderson does not revel in an amiably freewheeling sense of reminiscence when portraying the ‘70s. He does however compensate with a similarly freewheeling sense of unpredictability. Many moments that look appealing at face value initially (the concept of waterbeds, fame and fortune, idealistic politicians, stardom, celebrity culture) are almost always subverted in surprising ways.

It may not be what audiences are expecting as it shows contrasting points like choice and consequence, ignored fact and sentiment-based fiction and expectations and reality. However, Anderson imbues the simple premise of his story with a sense of melancholy; playing upon the meaning of nostalgia that proves to be emotionally compelling and dramatically sound.

Even problematic moments like the ones mentioned are given an outlook that is also subverted, particularly in two scenes involving Jerry Frick and the contrasts between them. The argument can also apply to the initially gratifying ending. Alongside his co-cinematographer Michael Bauman, he lends the film a grainy, tactile look that compliments both the sunny elements and the pensive elements; further strengthening the warping of nostalgia.

The unpredictability also applies to the comedic set-pieces and character arcs. The vast number of characters, many that are based on real people, are given roles that look like obvious tropes that would apply to films of the modern age but Anderson imbues them with enough depth that they come off as human, in both endearing and pathetic ways. As for the set-pieces, there is one intensely droll sequence involving a truck going downhill in reverse for an alarmingly long time that deftly extracts both humour and tension brilliantly.

That is not to say that Anderson does not have fun with the story. There are wonderful moments of unadulterated joy and amazingly well-timed comedy that makes the film a lot of fun to watch. The understandable outbursts that Alana has with her family due to the overbearing judgement she endures are simultaneously relatable, oddly charming and shockingly funny.

The character interplay is witty, amusing and is inherently satirical over its context. Alongside the several schemes that Gary undergoes to achieve the American Dream, there is one incredibly funny scene involving Alanah auditioning for a role and her objective for winning the part is to answer “yes” to every question and it is their impulsiveness overriding their guile that makes the scene memorable.

Credit must go to the actors who add much vitality and life to their roles. The supporting cast of acting veterans and musical artists including Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Ben Safdie, Bradley Cooper and the Haim family all bring credibility, humour and heart to the film while the leads Hoffmann and Haim bring much-needed conviction that plays beyond their charismatic facades. Haim in particular provides star-making work; managing to make the rebellious nature, the headstrong attitude and the indecisiveness of her character feels remarkably true and real.

Overall, Licorice Pizza is another gem from Paul Thomas Anderson that manages to provide a winning experience with all the charm, warmth and levity one would expect, while surprising with what’s in store underneath its enjoyably evocative exterior. Highly recommended.

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Licorice Pizza is now showing in cinemas, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.