AT THE MOVIES: Don’t hesitate to grab a slice of Licorice Pizza

By Doug Laman
Special to the Anna-Melissa Tribune
"Licorice Pizza"

Alan Kane (Alana Haim) and 15-year-old actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), the lead characters of Licorice Pizza, met in an innocuous enough manner. It's a picture day at Valentine's High school and Kane is a 25-year-old helping organize everything. Valentine becomes immediately smitten with her and he insists that he take her out on a date. For obvious reasons, Kane s disinterested in the proposition. From there, the duo can't stop hanging around each other, with the pair opting to work as business, rather than romantic, partners on a variety of businesses. The haywire nature of the 1970s means that there's something new around every corner, from a gas shortage to the antics of producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), to ensure that the lives of these two crazy kids will never get boring. 

Cooper Hoffman, left, and Alana Haim find each other in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Licorice Pizza."

The concept of making a movie with kids leads where the adults are the immature ones is not novel. Plenty of other features, especially ones targeted directly at youngsters, have gone down this road. But Licorice Pizza makes this approach feel fresh again simply by adding a quasi-tragic air to its execution of this concept. Watching adult figures in roles of great authority like actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn), performer Lucy Doolittle (Christine Ebersole), or even Richard Nixon (seen only through archival footage on television) act even more selfish than the 15-year-old protagonist of Licorice Pizza is a stark reminder of what it means to be a "grown-up". 

Then again, maybe the immaturity of the adults is to just allow for more amusing comic situations for the two leads to interact in, but it's a testament to Licorice Pizza's quietly impressive screenplay that it could be interpreted in this manner. Like so many great comedies, Licorice Pizza can be appreciated as either something deep, rich with sociopolitical commentary, or just as something you put on the TV as a reliable feel-good pick-me-up. Like so many films that inhabit the latter category, the success of Licorice Pizza can be measured by just how many lines of dialogue get stuck in your head afterward. Everyone be wary of me throughout January as countless comedic witticisms from this screenplay will be a regular part of my lexicon to an annoying degree. 

Anderson's script isn't just chock full of funny lines of dialogue, it's also impressively committed to a hangout vibe that serves the characters and atmosphere perfectly. Rather than handicapping the lives of Valentine and Kane with traditional three-act-structure problems, their existences ebb, flow and go on about complicated paths, just like real people. It's just wonderful how Anderson can pause things at will to allow a runaway truck or waterbeds to suddenly become the focus of things. In reality, you never know what's going to suddenly consume your life. The laidback storytelling of Licorice Pizza captures that part of daily existence beautifully. 

Taking such a chilled-out approach to things also gives the central actors plenty of opportunities to shine, especially Alana Haim in the film's breakout performance. In her first-ever acting role in a feature-length production, Haim comes alive as a firecracker that isn't afraid to speak her mind in any situation. Some of the best moments of Licorice Pizza are just Haim going scorched Earth on everyone around her, especially one unforgettable scene where she lays into her sister's. Haim is a riot in Licorice Pizza, ditto for Bradley Cooper in a small but memorable role that allows him to channel Eric Andre energy as his version of Peters will say and smash anything at a moment's notice. 

Alana Haim in "Licorice Pizza."
Cooper Hoffman, left, and Alana Haim in a scene from "Licorice Pizza."

Though very distinct projects in terms of tone and underlying themes, Licorice Pizza most reminded me of The Master in terms of prior Paul Thomas Anderson directorial efforts. Both are period pieces that aren't afraid to eschew conventional narrative norms in favor of just following around two people and their ever-complicated relationship. In both cases, keeping things so lean and streamlined is an ingenious move and makes for cinema you can't stop thinking about. Going in a more lighthearted direction for Licorice Pizza doesn't zap the substance out of Anderson's work. It just unleashes new ways for this filmmaker to impress, including in his dynamite choices for the film’s soundtrack. Hooray for a 1970s period piece choosing unorthodox needle drops instead of the same old tracks we've all heard a thousand times before!  

Alana Haim in a scene from "Licorice Pizza."

A lifelong movie fan and writer, Douglas Laman graduated from UT Dallas and is currently a graduate student at the University of North Texas. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.