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Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the Valley with the funny, shaggy, scattershot Licorice Pizza

Alana Haim delivers a star-making performance in this messy coming-of-age comedy
Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza
Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza
Photo: MGM
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Licorice Pizza is a woozy time-warp shuffle of a comedy: a California daydream of infatuation, aspiration, and protracted adolescence that seems to propel its celebrated writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, forward and backward at once. The film is set in the San Fernando Valley of the early 1970s, returning its maker to the time and place that made him, and also roughly to the same setting as his sprawling ensemble period pieces Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice. Yet if Licorice Pizza can be called a homecoming, it also paves new ground for the great American artist who plucked it from his memories and dreams: For better or worse, and especially on the heels of the refined, meticulous Phantom Thread, this looks like the shaggiest and most rambling movie of Anderson’s esteemed, ever-evolving career.

There’s an episodic quality here, almost a sense that the movie is making itself up as it goes along, across what feels like a single eventful summer of cameoing stars and breaking news pushed to the margins of fictional and fictionalized lives. At the center of its narrative, at once sprawling and incidental, is a love story—though, in the Andersonian tradition of romances punch-drunk and perverse, it’s an unconventional one.

The spark is lit in the opening scene, as 15-year-old child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of Anderson’s late muse, Philip Seymour Hoffman) first lays eyes on 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim, one of the three sisters of the rock band Haim) outside a photo studio. He’s a teenager and she’s not—a fact she repeats repeatedly, if only to remind herself—but there’s an undeniable chemistry detectable in the spaces between her jabs and amused rebukes. “I met the girl I’m going to marry one day,” waxes the teen to his kid brother later that night. We wonder if he’s right.

One might think of that other Anderson. There is, after all, a touch of Max Fischer in Gary, who’s pantomiming a life of adult sophistication and privilege—ordering Coca-Colas in his white suit at nightclubs, flanked by an entourage of comically pubescent friends. Gary, we learn, is rapidly aging out of whatever modest celebrity he’s achieved; his career is over before it’s begun. Yet he has the swagger of a young Hollywood somebody. And though Alana, who works at the photo studio, talks to him like the kid brother she never had (she actually has two sisters, played by Haim’s real sisters and bandmates), she’s plainly attracted, at the very least, to his proximity to fame. And so she’s pulled into the orbit of his teenage hustles, and even ends up working for him, an arrangement that echoes the thrust of Phantom Thread.

The plot is a crazy-quilt time capsule, pulling in the waterbed craze, the oil embargo of ’73, the pinball ban, a tight L.A. political race, and the amorous shit-kicking of New Hollywood. Anderson’s structure is borderline associative, his screenplay daisy-chaining the ephemera that may well have colored his own childhood in the Valley. Early on, the director—who shot the movie himself, with an assist from Michael Bauman—tracks his camera across the floor of a teen business expo, soaking in every gleaming shag detail of his early-’70s production design. In its loving mirage of a bygone Los Angeles, Licorice Pizza is like a gemini twin to Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood, the last movie from fellow ’90s hotshot turned indiewood royalty Quentin Tarantino.

The cast is stacked with familiar faces and scions, the fathers of famous men and the daughters of famous directors, brought in for walk-ons or to steal a single scene. We get Sean Penn, skin rough like leather, as an aging man’s man who’s William Holden in all but Christian name. Elsewhere, Anderson doesn’t even bother to slightly rename his supporting players from history, casting Uncut Gems director Benny Safdie as the closeted L.A. politician Joel Wachs. And the film’s extended comic highlight involves the famed producer Jon Peters, pricelessly played by Bradley Cooper as a rich-dick lothario teetering, in his unfiltered asides, on the edge of danger; a waterbed installation at his swanky house in the hills becomes a gauntlet of close calls and mishaps, culminating with a van rolling perilously through traffic.

It’s a great scene. And there are plenty more, especially in the freewheeling first hour of the movie, animated by the electric currents of Gary’s and Alana’s dovetailing experiences. Yet as a story, Licorice Pizza barely hangs together. Anderson, high on his own nostalgic supply (and on the FM reverie of his all-star soundtrack of Doors, Donovan, and more), stumbles through an endless series of oddball peripheral characters and comic situations, some funnier than others. (There’s one strange recurring bit with John Michael Higgins as a restaurateur doing an outrageous Japanese accent that feels like it could have been plucked out of a bad ’70s comedy.) The director has made a blissed-out flashback portrait of his hometown that’s all incident, very little shape. He’s just riffing here, to sporadically satisfying effect.

The movie only truly clicks when it’s zeroing in on the screwball relationship at its center—a romance perched, rather indefinitely, on the edge of transgression. Anderson knows as well as Alana does that any real relationship between the two is impossible. And so he keeps the two locked in a suspended animation of fighting and flirting, pushing them in and out of each other’s lives, inching them closer and then tearing them apart, drowning them in jealous competition and then sending them racing—quite literally at times—back into each other’s arms.

Both leads are outstanding in their feature debuts. As a knucklehead Casanova straining for the fantasy of adult glory, Hoffman has a perfect embryonic blend of confidence and awkwardness; every once in a while, you’ll catch a flash of his father in his mannerisms, and the effect is always poignant. But the true star-making turn here is from Alana Haim, deepening the magnetic enthusiasm she’s teased in the Haim music videos Anderson directed. Her Alana is by turns fierce, vulnerable, petulant, sweet, and seductive. When Penn’s lecherous Tinseltown legend says she reminds him of Grace Kelly, it’s at once a transparent pickup line (she looks nothing like Kelly) and a perhaps accidental acknowledgment of her instant movie-star radiance. Earlier on, a Hollywood agent describes her as a pitbull. That’s accurate, too.

And Licorice Pizza is really, in the end, her film. Anderson’s savviest move is to frame the early scenes through the iris of Gary’s puppy-love attraction, only to gradually cede more and more of the spotlight to Alana. What we come to see is that, on an emotional level, she’s something of a kid, too—someone reaching for an idea of adult life that remains as out of reach for her as it does for her literally adolescent admirer. Lots of American comedies are about resisting growing up. This one is about really wanting to and failing, perhaps triumphantly. Funny how it arrives in a movie that feels like its own form of willful, carefree regression: a master director, resisting his own creative maturity, one digressive Los Angeles detour at a time.