‘LICORICE PIZZA’ Review: No One Outpizzas PTA

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” is one of the best feel-good movies of the year. Filled with Linklater vibes and a “Rushmore”-like love story between Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman (both in their acting debuts), “Licorice Pizza” is equal parts and awkward (in all the right ways). It’s a frenetic world built around San Fernando Valley in the ’70s. With its limited release coming in select markets, “Licorice Pizza” is absolutely worth making a trip to see if it’s a reasonable distance. And like actual pizza, “Licorice Pizza” is worth the wait.

If nothing else, the world that PTA has created in “Licorice Pizza” is an inviting reminder of a different time; one without cell phones or social media, and a spinning soundtrack filled with the stars of the time such as David Bowie and Paul McCartney & Wings, with the most appropriate use of “Let Me Roll It” in a film, with its thumping bassline being a great representation of Gary’s (Cooper Hoffman) heartbeat at that moment. 

The romance of “Licorice Pizza” begins with Gary, who may as well be referred to as the “ultimate opportunist,” to steal WWE superstar, Edge’s, nickname. Gary is a kid actor/hustler at the spry age of 15 and one that would be able to sell Jordan Belfort a pen, or waterbed/pinball machine in this case. Alana Kane (Alana Haim), the photographer’s assistant-turned-chaperone/business associate/eventual lover is like Olivia Williams’ character in “Rushmore.” The film wastes no time setting the main two characters up, and their arc begins within the first scene. Clocking in at 2 hours and 13 minutes, “Licorice Pizza” is a breeze to watch, mainly because of the leads and needle drops.

Cooper Hoffman (L) and Alana Haim (R) in “Licorice Pizza.” Photo courtesy of MGM.

Almost the entirety of “Licorice Pizza” rests on young Haim and Hoffman’s shoulders to deliver. They do so tenfold, and taking the big swing with utilizing two actors in their first roles pays off. Granted, Hoffman is of course the son of the late, great, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who was a collaborator with PTA himself, so it makes sense why he was cast. But there is a likability in Cooper that can be traced back to his old man, with a similar smile and voice to his father. It’s damn-near impossible to place your eyes anywhere else but Hoffman when he’s on-screen, he is just that dynamic from the very first frame of the film. There’s no denying that his father would be proud of his work in “Licorice Pizza,” and he truly is a “showman” as his character says in the film.  

But equally remarkable is Alana Haim, who it does not appear is from a legendary acting household. Her whole family actually appears in the film, which explains the sisters’ chemistry while bickering (they are actually in a band together). She can be funny, as seen in her scene at a talent agent’s office, but she can also be serious. Above all else, Haim’s performance is very honest and PTA was the perfect combination for her skillset in her acting debut. Hopefully, there is more to come and this is only the beginning for her acting-wise.

Sean Penn (L) and Alana Haim (R) in “Licorice Pizza.” Photo courtesy of MGM.

Other notable names in the cast include Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, and Bennie Safdie. Don’t go in expecting large roles, but the trio are like landmarks for the film. In fact, other veteran actors including John C. Reilly and Skylar Gisondo both appear; the former tied to Penn’s character and the latter being a small obstacle for Gary to overcome early on. All of these actors are great fun in the moments they do come in, but they are like chapters in an anthology. None of the characters’ impact lingers into scenes after their arcs are complete, and that is perfectly fine. There is plenty to be said about a washed-up, narcissistic actor as Penn plays or a politician that has volunteers just as impotent as the politician himself and is also juggling his sexuality in the ’70s, but “Licorice Pizza” generally veers towards the light-hearted and trivial beats of its story for the better.

“Licorice Pizza” is a modern fairytale in a time of the past. The San Fernando Valley is not some luxurious hotspot, but it screams teen spirit. And that is exactly what “Licorice Pizza” is; a teenage dream about falling in love with a girl who is far older than you. Filled with pimples, trivial concerns, and plenty of awkward moments, it’s certainly the lightest film in terms of subject matter that PTA has done, and he can now add coming-of-age high school dramedy to his résumé. 

Grade: A-

“Licorice Pizza” is scheduled for a limited release on November 26 before its wide release beginning on December 25.