Licorice Pizza: a nostalgic slice of the 1970s

The latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson, how well does Licorice Pizza serve up a taste of the 70s?

Adam Tibke
16th February 2022
Image credit: IMDB
As the latest effort from acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson, the man behind such films as Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, Licorice Pizza is unquestionably a divisive endeavour. Whilst lauded by critics, many have taken issue with a problematic aspect of the film’s central relationship. In spite of the discourse, Anderson still offers a joyful and nostalgic coming of age tale and an unconventionally eccentric romantic comedy.

Set in sun-soaked 1970s Southern California, Licorice Pizza follows the turbulent relationship of Gary Valentine (played by Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Kane (portrayed by Alana Haim, as in the band). After meeting during a school picture day, their relationship persists through various trials and tribulations as Gary and Alana attempt to find their place in the world and whether or not that’s with one another.

Both Hoffman and Haim’s performances perfectly capture their character’s inner conflicts and the facades they adopt to hide them

From the opening shot, Anderson transports you into his grainy yet rose-tinted interpretation of his setting; the motif of characters being seen through reflection is first used to introduce us to Gary, adjusting his hair as he will do throughout the film. As a child star growing too big to portray a child, Gary is gregarious, using his wit and silver tongue to navigate his way through the film as he inexplicably becomes a successful entrepreneur. In here lies the tragic irony of Gary, he yearns to be older, tired of drinking cokes while those around him sip martinis.

On the other hand, we find Alana, working a job she hates for a misogynistic boss. She still lives at home with her overbearing, unabashedly religious father and nosey, judgemental sisters. To her, Gary is an escape, yet she’d never admit it. Alana feels as though her youth is escaping her while she remains unsure as to what she really wants to do with her life. Gary is sure of himself, Alana is not. Perhaps their relationships exist solely because they give each other a taste of what they both desire. Both Hoffman and Haim’s performances perfectly capture their character’s inner conflicts and the facades they adopt to hide them; the latter shines particularly throughout the film as the more relatable of the two.

Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters. Image credit: IMDB

However, it is in their relationship that the Licorice Pizza’s most controversial element lies. Gary is 15, while Alana is 25. The age gap is acknowledged in the film, albeit very briefly; Anderson leaves it up to the audience to decide whether the two leads should end up together, despite its ending heavily leaning one way. Unfortunately, one can’t help but feel a more ambiguous ending wouldn’t have left so many feeling rather uncomfortable upon exiting the cinema.

Nevertheless, there is still much to enjoy in Licorice Pizza. The direction and cinematography are superb; Gary’s conflict, in particular, is visualised remarkably well, as in some shots he looks mature and sagacious while in others – especially in moments of weakness – he is unmistakably a child. Anderson’s script is astute and witty, with the film’s casual structure never feeling careless. Peppered throughout Licorice Pizza are some brilliant supporting performances from the likes of Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper as the manic real-life hairdresser turner producer Jon Peters. The fantastic, era-appropriate needle-drops mustn’t go unappreciated either.

Both the name of a famous 70s Southern Californian record shop and a slang term for vinyl, ‘Licorice Pizza’ is simultaneously a reflection of the film’s setting and is symbolic of how personal the film is to Anderson. Like the film, the phrase is a reflection of the director’s childhood. That personal sentiment permeates the film, from the casting to the soundtrack. Unfortunately, your ultimate enjoyment of Licorice Pizza hinges upon your feelings towards the age gap in Gary and Alana’s relationship. Personally, for as well made as the film is, I couldn’t overcome my own discomfort towards their 10-year age difference; one has to wonder, had the roles been reversed, if the film would have even made it into production?

Video credit: MGM
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