Ah, Paul Thomas Anderson. Is there anything he can’t do? Well, yes actually, he apparently can’t make a movie that you could ever honestly call “too short.” Thankfully, he also can’t seem to make a movie that wastes a single minute of its runtime.
I’d hoped to finally catch the ol’ PTA off guard with his newest film entry, Licorice Pizza, which tells the story of two star-crossed youths during a time when being a young, white individual was the best thing life could offer you at the start. Oh, that’s all the time? Well, this one’s set in the early 70s.
Starring Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman as Alana Kane and Gary Valentine respectively, the film takes audiences in a journey through a pivotal time in Hollywood’s lifespan, when things were changing and the name of the game was invest and adapt. Haim and Hoffman are relatively new actors, but not entirely new to the game. Haim is part of a three-piece band of the same name (her sisters/bandmates Este and Danielle join her in the film as Alana Kane’s sisters) and Hoffman is the son of late legendary actor, Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, who previously worked with PTA a number of times before his passing in monumental films like The Master, Magnolia, and many more .
It’s no surprise that PTA knows how to pick his leads, but man did he absolutely nail it this time. The chemistry between Hoffman and Haim — who have to tackle a rather taboo and at times uneasy situationship between the 15-year-old Valentine and the 20-something-year-old Kane – is phenomenal. From the minute the picture starts rolling, the powerhouse acting duo takes PTA’s direction to new heights.
Gary Valentine is a child actor at the height of his career. His loving manager/mom has landed him a rather lucrative role in a Yours, Mine and Ours-esque special. But when he meets high-school photographer’s assistant Alana, he immediately falls head over heels and starts to plan his life with her. It’s a performance that the 18-year-old Hoffman pulls off spectacularly, conveying a truly childlike innocence that’s struggling to find its way past Gary’s obviously untraditional upbringing.
On their way to discovery and coming-of-age, Alana and Gary start a waterbed business, try to make each other jealous, and come across a variety of familiar faces (portraying other familiar faces) that make you point at the screen like Leo DiCaprio in that other Hollywood movie from that time.
The result is a fun, charming, albeit pretty lengthy adventure that serves as a reflection on Old and New Hollywood, as well as a look at the complexities of human nature when it comes to platonic/romantic relationships. But let’s talk about that awkward elephant in the room.
The movie points out several times that Gary and Alana are vastly different in age. And in fact, their situation in any other context would be considered pretty…well, criminal. But besides the fact that these are two fictional characters portrayed by two consenting adult actors (a fact that helps stomach the more questionable moments of the film), the film is trying to make a point here. At least, I hope so.
If the roles were reversed, this would obviously be a very different movie; one that would probably have an entirely different ending. But that itself is kind of the point, isn’t it? Child stars are forced to grow up way faster than they’re supposed to, and taught to hold more power than they can handle at such a young age. Both are unfortunately sexualized before a live studio audience, but to the point where they fit society’s gender norms. Especially the gender norms for the 60s/70s, which saw young Richie Rich types for the boys (getting your first tuxedo and martini before age 7) and an unwelcome glance for the girls.
Gary’s role in all of this is meant to reflect that side of Hollywood that a lot of people don’t like to talk about, but one that exists regardless. It’s easy to see how a young, charming, wealthy businesskid such as himself can try and woo Alana despite the controversial age difference. The movie thankfully doesn’t take this point too far (unless we’re talking about the ending), but it’s nevertheless a very troublesome dynamic to depict.
To his credit, I think PTA does as wonderful job as he can with the shaky subject matter, and while that idea was in the back of my mind during the entire movie, it never distracted from the overall quality of the film. Licorice Pizza is going to be a polarizing feature, but it won’t be for the wonderful direction by PTA, who incorporates the very heart and soul of the Hollywood that was. Nor will it be a direct slight on Haim and Hoffman’s bursting talent, which genuinely made me forget I wasn’t watching a documentary starring real Angelenos.
Licorice Pizza is now playing in select theaters and opens wide on December 25. Merry Christmas? Watch the full trailer here.