Licorice Pizza

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Paul Thomas Anderson is one of our best living filmmakers, but his last couple efforts were comedowns from his earlier work. Inherent Vice tried too hard to be eccentric, and Phantom Thread was cold and mannered. Maybe PTA recognized that himself, because his latest, Licorice Pizza, is the loosest and most accessible picture of his career. It's still filled with those wonderful quirks that define his style; they're just employed in the service of a story that's easy to get wrapped up in.

The movie is loosely based on the life of Gary Goetzman, the producer behind My Big Fat Greek Wedding, That Thing You Do!, and many more big hits with his Playtone partner Tom Hanks. Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) plays 15-year-old high school student/child actor Gary Valentine. In the opening scene, he stands in line for picture day and incessantly flirts with one of the photographer's assistants, 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim of the rock band Haim). She's alternately charmed and put off by his brazen personality. Nevertheless, she agrees to meet him for dinner.

Gary is a natural born showman, always hatching some grand scheme. Alana is a directionless screw-up, to the dismay of her sisters (played by real-life sisters/bandmates Danielle and Este Haim). The two form an unusual, intense friendship. Licorice Pizza doesn't have a formal plot. Instead, we witness the series of adventures these two have together. Among them: opening a pinball arcade; an encounter with a drunken acting legend (Sean Penn); an effort to get Alana a movie role; and the start of a waterbed business. That last one leads to the best section of the film, as Gary and Alana deliver a waterbed to famed producer Jon Peters (the hilarious Bradley Cooper), who needlessly proceeds to berate and threaten them.

Even before release, Licorice Pizza garnered some controversy, as people speculated whether the Gary/Alana relationship is appropriate. To be clear, it's not appropriate, which is the point of the film. He acts a little bit older than he is, she acts a little bit younger than she is. A weird bond forms between them for that reason. Gary tries to make it romantic or sexual. Alana rejects that, although she does do ill-advised things like flashing her breasts to placate her adolescent admirer. Does she have feelings for him too? Perhaps. And if she does – or if she fears developing them – she knows that's wrong. More than anything, the story is about how having all these questionable experiences with a teenage boy opens Alana's eyes to her own immaturity. During the third act, she makes a stab at becoming politically active, directly inspired by the discomfort she's awakened in herself.

Anderson doesn't judge either of his characters, nor does he judge the blurred boundaries of their relationship. He merely presents them, in effect suggesting that people connect for unexpected reasons, just as they can evolve from having dubious interactions. In other words, he's looking at how an inappropriate relationship spurs two simpatico individuals to figure themselves out more. Personal growth, in this case, comes from surprising sources. Gary and Alana join together at a pivotal moment in both their lives, a fact that will unite them forever, regardless of where they go from here.

Winning chemistry between the leads makes the dynamic between the characters irresistible. Hoffman has inherited a great deal of his father's charm. He makes Gary slick and over-confident, without ever becoming obnoxious. Haim is a true revelation. As a fan of her band, I'm worried that Anderson may have inadvertently broken them up. She's so remarkable here that every major director is going to want to hire her. Alana could have seemed pathetic in her aimlessness, yet Haim brings a humane quality to this young woman who is lost, kind of knows it, and gradually realizes that simply picking a direction is enough to get herself moving again. Together, the stars win you over, even when the people they're portraying are at their most flawed.

There is one major defect in Licorice Pizza, and it's something that will put some viewers off the entire movie. John Michael Higgins has a very small role as the owner of a Japanese restaurant. He's married to an Asian woman, to whom he speaks in an offensively stereotypical accent. (Think Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's.) He returns for a second scene during the last act, now married to a different Asian woman but still speaking in that accent. The character – not his wives – is the butt of the joke, and I think it's here to show that Gary can be indiscriminate in who he associates with. Nonetheless, the joke doesn't land, causing Higgins' scenes to unintentionally make light of racism.

Those two scenes constitute less than five minutes out of a 133-minute film where literally every other scene is wonderful. It's shame they weren't left on the cutting room floor. Beyond that, Licorice Pizza is a funny, unpredictable, and insightful story about two people figuring out that their dysfunctions are oddly compatible. Anderson has made a testament to the occasional beauty of imprudence.

out of four

Licorice Pizza is rated R for language, sexual material, and some drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 13 minutes.