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  • Nate Adams

'Licorice Pizza' review: Paul Thomas Anderson's blissful comedy one of years best

Courtesy of United Artist/MGM


“There Will Be Blood,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Phantom Thread,” and “Boogie Nights” are films heavily invested in the framework of human connection and relationships. They present a semi-fractured point of view tangled in a variety of complicated measures. Some, like Daniel Day Lewis wild turn as a maniacal oil prospector in “There Will Be Blood,” challenges the viewers psychological endurance whereas others, Mark Wahlberg’s happy-go-lucky teenager trying to make it in the adult film industry ala “Boogie Nights,” are alive in the moment. Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson relishes those idiosyncratic moments brought together by strange events (remember the end of “Magnolia?”). So, you could either be surprised or reaffirmed when the director’s name comes on screen in the borderline masterpiece “Licorice Pizza,” as it’s easily his most freewheeling and approachable film to date but still maintains those signature human elements.

Never provoking in a way his previous films have done, “Licorice Pizza” sculpts a reality where the unexpected is welcome and rolling with the punches, even if you’re falsely accused of murder, can yield a menagerie of bliss. Though the film has come under fire in recent weeks (it’s playing in select theaters before a nationwide expansion Christmas day) for its depiction of a 15-year old’s relationship with a 25-year-old, however, watching these fine young actors interpret the characters (and in context) you can immediately ascertain the tone Anderson is trying to achieve.

“Licorice Pizza” earnestly begins on a sunny morning in Encino, California 1973 where Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son to the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) uses his taunt, entrepreneurial tactics to try and woo Alana (Alana Haim of the pop rock band Haim) in going on a date with him. Watching the young Hoffman turn on the jets and maneuver around every possible angle to convince Alana, who isn’t biting, to have dinner with him presents a dizzying array of Anderson’s best qualities. It also shows Gary’s a salesman on steroids which will come in handy when he tries selling waterbeds and pinball machines later on.

Gary, in acting older than he is, shows how much growth and maturity he must gain and Alana, understanding the age dynamics, appreciates the enthusiasm, eventually becoming intertwined in several of his schemes that takes them to unexpected places including the house of a coked-up Jon Peters (played by a hilariously unhinged Bradley Cooper). Throughout “Licorice Pizza” the two waltz around their attraction to each other, invoking bouts of jealousy and rage whenever the other shows the slightest interest in someone else, but in a harmless, platonic type of method (even if Gary does it for the attention). We’re constantly reaffirmed how both are caught in different worlds: he wants to become a successful actor and blossom into an adult before finishing puberty; and she’s feeling the pressure of being a twentysomething trying to lock down a clear path in a convoluted world.

Nothing about “Licorice Pizza” is straightforward as Anderson unspools the film in episodic fashion, embracing these two souls with open arms. He enjoys battles of wits and clashing ideals especially as Gary ramps up his side businesses and anoints Alana his unofficial spokesperson. Meanwhile, the characters who find themselves in their orbit (Sean Penn playing a sleazy producer, John Micheal Higgins as a racist restaurant owner, and Benny Safdie’s ambitious young politician) are brief glimpses into everything, good or bad, awaiting them.

Anderson’s casting choices have always been respectable (Wahlberg in “Boogie Nights,” Dillon Freasier in “There Will Be Blood” or Adam Sandler’s rare dramatic turn in “Punch-Drunk Love”) but Haim and Cooper are absolute revolutions. Both are fresher and more alive than seasoned pros in other, much hyped, Oscar contenders. They keep Anderson’s script energized and moving at super kinetic speed, grounding the film's raw moments alongside an eclectic soundtrack populated with Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Donovan, and Gordon Lightfoot. Anderson is wise to rest the movie on their very able shoulders.

Watching “Licorice Pizza,” which doesn’t abide by standard three-act structures, is like going on a journey of self-discovery with all the boring and nonchalant moments cut for time. It’s a remarkable achievement that’s stylishly executed, paced, and edited, making you thrilled once again to see Anderson create a world of possibilities unshackled by the constraints of conventional moviemaking. Grab a slice and dive right in.

Grade: A-

LICORICE PIZZA is now playing in select cities and opens nationwide Christmas Day


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