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Review: Licorice Pizza (2021)

Licorice Pizza (2021)

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Premise: Set in the mid-1970s, a fifteen-year-old hustler (Cooper Hoffman) befriends a twenty-five-year-old woman (Alana Haim). The two of them go in on a series of business ventures while navigating life in the Los Angeles area.

What Works: Licorice Pizza is a period piece and it recreates its era in a tangible way. The illusion of the time period is utterly convincing. The movie never looks art directed; the locations and characters feel of their era. But beyond the look, Licorice Pizza also captures the sensibilities of the 1970s. When filmmakers set their stories in the recent past, especially in a nostalgic way, they tend to cherry pick the quaint and lovable aspects of that time and sanitize away the rougher details that would scandalize a contemporary audience. Licorice Pizza doesn’t do that. It presents the 1970s with a uniquely ’70s point of view and it includes racism and sexual politics that would not be acceptable today. This picture isn’t wistful for those regressive qualities but it does acknowledge them and the filmmakers require the audience to cope with their meaning. Licorice Pizza centers upon the relationship between fifteen-year-old Gary and twenty-five-year-old Alana, played by Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim. There is a romance between them but it is complicated by their age difference and their divergent priorities. Like most coming-of-age stories, this is a film about young people finding themselves and the Los Angeles setting allows Licorice Pizza to juxtapose fantasy and reality. Gary and Alana encounter characters who are lost somewhere in between, namely actor Jack Holden (played by Sean Penn as a lightly disguised stand-in for real life actor William Holden) and Hollywood producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper). Gary and Alana navigate this messy overlap of fantasy and reality and their friendship gives the movie a sufficient narrative shape and palatable emotional stakes.

What Doesn’t: Licorice Pizza continues Paul Thomas Anderson’s growing disinterest in plot and narrative. The Master, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread were more invested in exploring characters and places than in adhering to a discernable narrative structure. Licorice Pizza has an overarching story but the film isn’t ruled by it. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing but the picture defies the norms of most mainstream filmmaking. This is whimsical filmmaking and it requires the viewer to go along with it. Licorice Pizza is a Los Angeles movie. It’s about that particular community at a particular time and as such Licorice Pizza might be most of interest to people who live in the Los Angeles area presently or resided there in the mid-1970s. The film often feels like an inside joke for and by Los Angelenos.

Bottom Line: Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most accessible film since Boogie Nights which had a similar tone and appeal. Viewers who have a connection to the film’s setting will probably get the most out of it but Licorice Pizza is also a nuanced coming-of-age tale.

Episode: #885 (January 2, 2022)