One of the most critically acclaimed films to come out of 2021 is Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest release, Licorice Pizza. The film follows the unlikely meeting of teenager actor, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and photographer assistant, Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and the subsequent turbulent relationship that develops between them. Although Gary and Alana have very different backgrounds, they both have passion and ambition to better themselves and it is this drive that they have that leads into their adventures and the events of the film. Anderson’s ability to create fully-rounded characters that have talents and flaws is what makes Licorice Pizza so captivating.
As expected of an Anderson film, Licorice Pizza is filled with well-written characters, a character-led storyline and is beautifully directed. However, Licorice Pizza has not been without controversy thanks to the age gap between the protagonists with Gary being 15 and Alana being 25, especially as their relationship begins to grow closer. The age gap does make Licorice Pizza uncomfortable to watch at times because Gary is underage. However, as with any Paul Thomas Anderson film, there is much more going on aside from the protagonists relationship. We see Gary and Alana’s separate personal lives and thr colourful characters that they encounter such as Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and a heartbreaking storyline with local politician, Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). Anderson’s eclectic mix of real characters, characters based on real people and fictional creations helps to create a California that is true to his style and vision.
Alana Haim has proven herself to be one of the standout newcomers of 2021. She has already shown that she is an incredibly talented musician as she is a member of the band, Haim with her two sisters who play her sisters in the film as well. What makes Haim such a joy to watch is the charisma that she brings to the character. We don’t always understand Alana’s choices and may not agree with them, but there is something about Haim’s performance that keeps the audience watching. We feel the frustrations that Alana has as she deals with a bunch of kids that don’t have the same understanding of the world as she does, while simultaneously finding herself overwhelmed by the pressures from the older generation. Alana simply wants to find a place where she belongs and her journey leads her to Gary. She knows that embarking on a relationship with Gary is wrong due to his age, but she is constantly drawn back to him. Her attempts to reject her feelings fail as she finds herself in harm’s way while on a date with actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn) while differing religious beliefs get in the way of her blooming relationship with Lance (Skyler Gisondo).
To play the role of Gary, Anderson bestowed the task upon Cooper Hoffman, son of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Marking his film debut, Hoffman proves that he has what it takes to not only lead a film, but to do so with the charisma and charm that feels resonant of his father’s work. Gary is a confident character and adamant that he knows what he wants. In the film’s opening scene, we see him meet Alana and tell her that she is the love of his life. Despite only being aged 15, Gary’s life is filled to the brim with adult responsibilities. He is an actor and businessman, running a waterbed business and a pinball arcade during the film’s timeline. It’s easy to forget that the character is only 15 due to the high levels of responsibility and common sense that he has. On the other hand, he is extremely naive and believes that the world revolves around him. Anderson’s decision to have both protagonists played by newcomers is incredibly smart as they bring that starry-eyed ambition to the roles that perhaps a veteran would not have been able to do.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are known to be filled to the brim with stars and although he has newcomers in the leading roles, he makes sure that he has an A-list cast in support. The highlight of the supporting cast is Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters in what is a deeply unsettling and neurotic performance that captures Peters’ unpredictability perfectly. From the moment he appears on the screen, the tone of the film instantly shifts as he is deeply threatening in delivery while masking his threats in comical analogies and metaphors. The entire storyline that involves Peters is the best sequence in the film and this is thanks in part to Cooper’s intense portrayal.
Jonny Greenwood returns for his fifth collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson and as expected, it is fantastic. Unlike other Anderson films, Licorice Pizza is dominated by songs from the 1970s in its soundtrack and doesn’t utilise Greenwood’s score as much. When we do hear Greenwood’s tracks, he takes advantage of the romantic undertones of the story as the music is filled with the longing that the characters have for each other. 2021 has been a busy year for Greenwood as he has also composed the music for Spencer and The Power of the Dog and it’s amazing to hear how different each soundtrack is while managing to maintain his own identity throughout.
There are aspects of Licorice Pizza that feel uncomfortable at times, primarily the age gap between the protagonists and the way their relationship is portrayed. However, there is no denying that the film is beautifully shot and is filled with fantastic performances, especially from Alana Haim and Bradley Cooper. Licorice Pizza is a nostalgic nod to 1970s California and transports us to the world behind the scenes of Hollywood in a way that hasn’t been done before.
What did you think of Licorice Pizza? Let me know in the comments below!
Licorice Pizza is out in cinemas now!