It's school picture time at a high school located in Southern California's San Fernando Valley. This is the opening scene from Paul Thomas Anderson's 1970s-set "Licorice Pizza."
Alana Haim, the assistant photographer, strides up and along a line of students waiting outside a gym in the sun. Although she isn't looking at them all, one of them makes himself known. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), locks eyes with her, and he doesn't let go. Even though she tries to ignore him, She's only 15 years old, and he's an actor. But, his attempt to pick her up -- sweetly direct and with a little bit of maturity -- makes her smile grudgingly.
She says, "You're like little Robert Goulet and Dean Martin."
Anderson's camera follows them as they walk. Although few moments can match that opening, "Licorice Pizza” never ceases to pinball to an infectious, sunny groove. Anderson's ninth film is his most intimate, shaggiest and most affectionate. It was also the one that I wanted to see again immediately after it was finished.
"Licorice Pizza" gets its name from a local record shop from the same time, which is not shown in the film. Anderson's film gives the impression that Anderson's light air is from a lost time. It wasn't so long ago, I believe, that the 1970s seemed so far back. However, that decade is almost half a century ago from today. It's the same distance between the '70s and the flappers of the 20s.
"Licorice Pizza", with its rich detail, oodles and verve, conjures a more tranquil, less shambolic time. While it's nostalgic, the film also contains reminders of the pitfalls of the era. For example, the opening shot is broken by an older man's slap.
Filmed in 35mm format, the film feels like a collection of old stories and memories. The comedy set pieces and digressions of "Licorice Pizza" are based on the anecdotes and stories of Gary Goetzman (a producer and actor who is best known for being Tom Hanks’ producing partner). Hollywood is not far from us is a constant source for intrigue and comedy. William Holden's stand-in is Sean Penn. Bradley Cooper, a wonderfully outrageous actor, plays Jon Peters as Barbra Streisand's boyfriend. Later, Benny Safdie is recruited to join Alana as a local politician. They make Gary look more like a genuine, sweet exception by giving Alana portraits of older men.
"Licorice pizza" reminds me of an Elaine May movie. It's an amicable, sometimes satirical, odyssey filled with outsized characters. Anderson is a rare outsider, but his attraction to a subject and their moods are always unpredictable makes this a wonderful detour. It's a love story that's similar to his previous film "Phantom Thread" or "Punch Drunk Love", which featured Cooper's father Philip Seymour Hoffman selling mattresses. This was a touching connection to the waterbeds hawked in his son's movie "Licorice Pizza". Gary, who is self-promotional, could also be a junior version of some of Anderson's hucksters from past films: Philip Baker Hall's gambler, Mark Wahlberg's porn star, and Daniel Day-Lewis the oilman in "There Will Be Blood."
"Licorice pizza" feels different. It's Anderson's culmination of a deconstructionist phase. Anderson, a talented filmmaker, has been moving towards organic, small movies ever since his sprawling epics ("Boogie Nights," Magnolia," There Will Be Blood," and "The Master") Anderson, a personable filmmaker, has continued to shrink. Anderson's fingerprints are more common than his movies, but they are less obvious. Anderson is his own cinematographer here, as he did with Michael Bauman on "Phantom Thread." Although "Licorice Pizza" may be based on Goetzman's stories, Anderson feels it almost as a family movie, with Anderson and his friends.
Alana asks "Is it real?" in one of the scenes at the Tail o' the Cock restaurant in Encino.
Haim and Hoffman's performances are what give "Licorice Pizza" its authenticity. Both have never acted in a movie before, and their fresh faces electrify the film. Hoffman (18 years old) is a poignant star in Anderson's film, but he also has an innate sincerity. Haim, one of three sisters from San Fernando Valley who make up Haim is even more remarkable. (Anderson has also shot music videos for Haim. Gary knows his own abilities, but Alana is still learning. Haim's capabilities -- such as steering a daring backwards escape with a moving van -- seem to expand as "Licorice Pizza” winds its joyous way home.
Motion Picture Association of America has rated "Licorice Pizza" as R for language, sexual material, and drug use. Running time: 133 mins. Four stars out four.