Film review: ‘Licorice Pizza’ stars weave a charming, riotous tale of young love

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest captures the spirit of the San Fernando Valley in the ‘70s


Newcomers Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman make “Licorice Pizza” a joy to watch.

Haim, who plays a 20-something Alana Kane, has remarkable moments as she deals with the flirtatious overtures of Hoffman, a teen-age Gary Valentine who declares almost immediately after seeing Alana that she will be his wife.

At times, Alana is incredulous over Gary’s pronouncements. But at other times she’s attracted, while dismissing him fondly as an idiot.

Gary, however, is no idiot. He has his own money, having been a child star on a TV show. And he has an entrepreneurial spirit after growing out of his childhood charms and losing his acting gigs. He opens a waterbed store, and then a pinball machine palace. Alana watches his striving with amused wonder, and she also becomes his driver, since Gary doesn’t have a car or a license.

Such is the setup for writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film — an homage to growing up and falling in love in the San Fernando Valley in 1973.

The adventures of Alana and Gary take them into situations that are brilliant set pieces featuring cameos by Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn and Tom Waits.

The cameo by Cooper is, in fact, a show-stopper. Alana and Gary are delivering a waterbed to Hollywood producer Jon Peters, who was the partner of Barbra Streisand at the time. Alana has rented a U-Haul truck for the waterbed delivery.

Cooper plays Peters to the max, with his chest hairs falling out of a very tight shirt. He’s tan and high-strung — a braggart extraordinaire. Think Warren Beatty in “Shampoo.”

There’s a gas shortage — and running out of gas plays a big role in what follows. But to get back home, Alana has to put the stick-shift U-Haul truck into neutral and navigate the hills and curves of the neighborhood streets while going backward. Cooper’s Peters, meanwhile, has his own gasoline problems, which complicates matters.

It brings to mind, actually, the funny San Francisco hills chase scene featuring Streisand and Ryan O’Neal in 1972’s “What’s Up, Doc?”

The other outstanding cameo features Penn as a famous actor named Jack Holden, a cigarette-smoking, gravel-voiced charmer who is putting the moves on Alana in a restaurant, much to Gary’s dismay.

Holden’s romancing, however, is put on hold when a boisterous diner and apparent Holden friend named Rex Blau (Tom Waits) shows up at the table and challenges his pal to perform a motorcycle stunt in a nearby field.

Blau has a line that’s bound to become famous when referring to Holden: “You shiny, gold, tall, inexpensive prick!”

Speaking of pricks, Benny Safdie plays a politician who briefly enchants Alana in yet another cameo.

It should be noted that Haim, in real life, is a member of a rock band, Haim, with her two sisters. And Anderson has known her family since his school years in the San Fernando Valley. In fact, Haim’s two sisters as well as her father and mother appear in the movie as her family. (Haim’s mother was one of Anderson’s teachers.) Also, Anderson has filmed music videos for the Haim band.

And it should be further noted that Hoffman is the son of the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who starred in Anderson’s “Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights.” Anderson has known the young Hoffman since he was a toddler.

So “Licorice Pizza” is very much of a San Fernando family affair for Anderson. It’s clear that he loves his characters and his actors. You will, too.

“Licorice Pizza” opens in Austin on Dec. 24. If you need a laugh after dealing with the last two years of coronavirus grief, this just might be the holiday movie that gets you back into a theater. Just wear a mask.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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