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Licorice Pizza is nostalgic joy

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Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, Phantom Thread) helms this story about a first love between Alana (Alana Haim) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman), set in the San Fernando Valley circa 1973. (133 min.)

SHEER EXUBERANCE Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymore Hoffman) and Alana (Alana Haim of the band Haim) make their feature-length debuts in Paul Thomas Anderson's Licorice Pizza, a love letter to the '70s and San Fernando Valley. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BRON STUDIOS AND FOCUS FEATURES
  • Photo Courtesy Of Bron Studios And Focus Features
  • SHEER EXUBERANCE Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymore Hoffman) and Alana (Alana Haim of the band Haim) make their feature-length debuts in Paul Thomas Anderson's Licorice Pizza, a love letter to the '70s and San Fernando Valley.
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Glen Paul Thomas Anderson is such a singular filmmaker. This is his ninth film, and he's yet to make a bad one. He grew up in and still resides in the San Fernando Valley, and this film is his love letter to his home, the 1970s, adolescence, and first loves. Gary is an ambitious, confident hustler. At 15, he's already a seasoned child star with a PR firm. His mom, Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), is his sole employee. When Gary meets Alana on photo day at school, he's immediately smitten. She's there working with Tiny Toes Photography. At 25, she's 10 years Gary's senior, but Gary's unbridled swagger disarms her. She's directionless, going through her 20s on autopilot, and about to be inspired in ways she never dreamt of. It's such a weird, unconventional story, and it'd be easy to judge it as disturbing, but their bumpy romance is chaste, and in almost every way Gary is more mature than the mercurial, slightly angry Alana, who still lives at home with her parents and two sisters (Haim's actual siblings and parents, sisters Danielle and Este, father Moti, and mother Donna Haim). We watch as Gary and Alana race through the valley from one exciting moment to another, start a waterbed and beanbag chair company, run into a wild cast of eccentric characters, and make each other in turns exacerbated, jealous, or inspired. The plot is secondary—this is about possibilities and living in the moment.

Anna Both characters have a lot of growing up to do, and while the idea of a 25-year-old leading on a 15-year-old definitely makes me feel all kinds of uncomfortable, these two characters are magnets you just can't keep apart. Gary is both way beyond his years and still very much a teenager with all the typical problems like acne and girl troubles. He's endearing, loving to his mother—a woman who seems a little lost herself—and his younger brother, Kirk (Will Angarola). Along comes Alana, pretty in an unassuming way, smart-alecky and witty, wanting more than her simple life but totally lost at what to change. Anderson is definitely a favorite. He's so good at making mundane moments watchable, trusting his cast to tell a story, even if that story isn't about a whole lot. He pulled quite the cast here, too, from Bradley Cooper as the creepy and cocky Jon Peters, to Sean Penn as movie star Jack Holden and Tom Waits as director Rex Blau. This hasn't done as well with audiences as it has with critics. From what I've seen, some people found it a little too much about nothing. For me, a nothing story is just fine if it's told well with a solid cast—and Licorice Pizza absolutely fits that bill.

Glen Gary's character is based on Gary Goetzman, a child actor turned producer who now works with Tom Hanks. Penn as Holden is clearly meant as a nod to William Holden. Cooper's Jon Peters is also a real person, now a film producer who when this story is set was a hairdresser dating Barbra Streisand. There's also a cameo by John C. Reilly playing Fred Gwynne, the Herman Munster actor. You see him during this amazing tracking shot of Gary moving through the Hollywood Palladium to set up a waterbed booth during a Teen Expo, which leads to the film's weirdest tangent, which I won't ruin for you. My favorite small moment is when Gary is helping Alana get into show business by setting her up with an interview with his talent agent, Mary Grady (Harriet Sansom Harris), another real-life character. Harris' performance is so amazingly cringe-inducing. Wait's Rex Blau was based on director Mark Robson, known for The Harder They Fall (1956), Peyton Place (1957), and Valley of the Dolls (1967). The sets, locations, costumes—it all screams 1970s. I really loved this film, and it will absolutely make stars of its two leads, with both making their feature film debuts. This is an ingenious, deeply entertaining film.

Anna This film is certainly a nod to nostalgia and a love letter to Hollywood. It's cleverly shot, too—that tracking shot was awesome, as was watching Alana navigate a runaway truck backwards down the winding hills of Southern California in order to avoid Jon Peters. It's hilarious and poignant, and the characters are acutely aware of how delicate life, relationships, and friendships can be. At one point, Alana is having a smoke with her sister and she asks, "Is it weird that I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends? Cuz I think it's ****ing weird." It's a character seeing the absurdity of her own situation, but there's just something there she can't stay away from. The cameos in this were so much fun; you can tell stars want to work with Anderson. I'll watch this one again and again. It hits a perfect sweet spot of nostalgia, friendship, and learning how to trust the people we're becoming during those tumultuous first years of adulthood, love, and finding our path. Δ

Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Split Screen. Glen compiles streaming listings. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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