Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
When it comes to mainstream cinema, it’s rare to see experimental filmmaking or boundary pushing stories. There are plenty of directors who deliver new and different kinds of films, but it’s uncommon for these directors to be household names, or for these films to become box office successes. Whenever these kinds of filmmakers do hit it big, it’s usually because they have applied their experimental touches to genres that viewers naturally gravitate towards. For example, Christopher Nolan applies artistry to superhero, science fiction and action fare, and Quentin Tarantino applies his to gangster, crime and westerns. Paul Thomas Anderson is a notable exception, as he is a household name who regularly delivers weird and provocative films that seem to hit with audiences. His most recent Oscar nominated effort, Licorice Pizza (2021), might just be his way of testing those boundaries even more.
Set in the San Fernando Valley circa 1973, we are introduced to Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a moderately successful 15-year-old child actor. On his high school picture day, he notices 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), one of the photography assistants directing the students to their photo shoot. Gary approaches Alana with the intention of asking her out on a date, but she is obviously resistant due to their massive age gap. His insistence gets the better of her, resulting in them forming an unconventional friendship. Over the course of the story, Gary and Alana start a few businesses together, get into some hairy situations and constantly get on each other’s nerves. Despite all the jealousy, toxicity and the uncomfortable age gap, the pair struggle to ignore the feelings they have for each other.
Director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson is never afraid of putting the viewer in awkward situations. Part of his genius is to make us feel uncomfortable, which in turn makes us analyse the actions, emotions and motivations of his characters. Even if you find the entire film completely abhorrent, all the things you don’t like have probably been considered and are still intentional, as they contribute to the film’s overall message. If you find the lurid thrills of Boogie Nights (1997) to be repulsive, you were probably meant to feel that way. If you find Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood (2007) to be entirely hateful, you’re definitely supposed to. Anderson is playing a similar game with Licorice Pizza, as this unconventional love story barely shies away from how inappropriate it is. As usual, Anderson’s message is clear, but this time it doesn’t feel entirely satisfying.
This comes down to the fact that there’s practically no redeeming qualities to any of these characters. Granted, Anderson is a master when it comes to writing highly flawed individuals, as seen in Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights, Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), There Will Be Blood, The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014), and Phantom Thread (2017). These are all cynical stories with cynical characters at the centre. However, Anderson still seems to have an underlying love of people in general, as we often see the genuine humanity underneath all the negativity. His work constantly tells us that it’s possible to love and care for people despite their flaws. Sadly, Licorice Pizza misses that one key element, as it’s hard to see any positive qualities underneath its so-called ‘heroes’. Instead of convincing us that these people are falling in love for good reasons, it feels like they are falling in love with each other’s worst qualities.
While this is probably part of the film’s commentary on love, it doesn’t entirely ring true considering it’s all directed to seem endearing. Whenever Gary is being self absorbed, ignorant and stubborn it’s rarely framed as a negative, instead being packaged as if it’s charming. In truth, nothing about it is charming, so it’s hard to believe Alana would feel anything but contempt towards him. However, this is once again wrapped up in Anderson’s cleverly subversive storytelling, as it could be argued he’s presenting a harsh criticism of romance films in general. Many conventional romantic films would seem strange, awkward and creepy if you were to view them in a real world context, so it’s fair to say that Anderson is bringing that critique to light.
This is what makes Licorice Pizza so frustrating, as you can tell there are multiple messages being communicated through every meandering sequence. The narrative is broken into very subtle vignettes, as the characters redirect their motivations and focus multiple times throughout the story. Happily, this does keep the viewer engaged throughout as it effectively packages all the layers, but it also makes the film feel a lot longer than it is. While it can be a good sign when a two hour story feels larger than it actually is, in this case it’s because you’re constantly waiting for it to get to the point. The pieces do come together in the end, but there’s a nagging sense that Licorice Pizza wastes too much time in arriving there.
Despite the thematic and emotional confusion, Anderson remains a skilled storyteller with a wonderfully visual eye. From Boogie Nights, to Inherent Vice (and now Licorice Pizza), Anderson clearly has a great reverence for the 1970s and it’s entire aesthetic. If nothing else, you can admire the absolutely brilliant production design, cinematography, costuming and music. Whenever the 70s is represented on film, we usually get the gritty, grimy and ugly aspects, but Anderson reminds us of the colour, vibrance and excitement of the era. Through the various plot threads, we are given a laughably enjoyable reminder of all the strange yet wonderful trends that cropped up at the time. Even if you’re not plugged into Anderson’s bizarre story, his love of the 70s will keep you entertained.
It’s unfair to say Licorice Pizza is a bad film, as Anderson hasn’t ever really made a bad film. With his work, you know you’re going to get something that will put you on edge. The question is whether or not the individual viewer will be on board. In this case, it was hard to get on board, but that doesn’t mean Licorice Pizza won’t be a delight for others.
Best way to watch it: On a waterbed.