Saturday 26 March 2022

Movie Review: Licorice Pizza (2021)

A coming-of-age quirky semi-romance, Licorice Pizza portrays an awkward, undefinable relationship between two well-rounded characters.

The setting is the San Fernando Valley in 1973. 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Charlie Hoffman) is a former child actor, full of confidence as he tries to transition to more adult roles. At a school line-up for yearbook photos, he meets 25-year-old photographer's assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim), and he pesters her into an unusual friendship.

Alana acts as Gary's chaperone on a trip to New York to tape a television show. Back in LA, Gary starts a waterbed company, and Alana becomes his business partner. He tries to help her break into show business as an actress, and she meets famous star Jack Holden (Sean Penn). A waterbed delivery to the home of film producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) coincides with a gas shortage crisis. Still ahead of them is involvement in a political campaign, and yet another business venture.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza is inspired by a sun-drenched time and place, and the real-life exploits of child star turned movie producer Gary Goetzman. This is an intimate, small-scale story of two people navigating their way into adult responsibilities, albeit with a ten year age difference blocking progression towards a full-fledged romance. 

With Gary and Alana never quite portrayed as lovers, the film has to refreshingly work hard at who they are and what their bond represents. He is wise beyond his years and she sparkles with a feisty spirit despite still living at home in a conservative Jewish household. With no contrived relationship blockers, they are solely responsible for their friendship's trajectory. They support each other, argue, get mad, make each other jealous, enjoy misadventures, drift apart and come back to each other, and pick each other up. These are two people who learn to care, their commitment more emotional than physical.

Two newcomers animate Gary and Alana with endearing flaws. Cooper Hoffman (son of Philip Seymour) is full of boyish charm stretching into startling adult over-confidence. Musician Alana Haim brings delightfully grounded exasperation to Alana, a woman starting to notice she is late to the growing-up party.

The early 1970s in Los Angeles aesthetic, enhanced by a musical soundtrack from the era (Paul McCartney and Wings, David Bowie, Sonny and Cher, The Doors), provides a sun-baked backdrop of featureless streets, ready to host anything that sells. Gary's waterbed business launches with a gaudy party, while later Alana experiences the underbelly of political idealism. Her hero-worship combined with a crush on a local candidate exposes her to the crass difference between spin and reality.

Licorice Pizza is certainly episodic, almost fragmented, as Gary and Alana move from chapter to chapter, and both the Jon Peters and Jack Holden incidents veer towards non-sequitur farce. But therein also lies the film's charm, as a kind-of-romance that cares enough about life-shaping stories, with all the associated retrospective weirdness.

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