Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in the “Licorice Pizza,” which is nominated for three Academy Awards. (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in the “Licorice Pizza,” which is nominated for three Academy Awards.

Paul Thomas Anderson

‘Licorice Pizza’ is a sweet treat

January 8, 2022

From the moment “Licorice Pizza” opens, you know you are in for a pop culture treat. 

Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest flick immerses viewers in a saturated 1973 Californian summer through a nostalgic coming-of-age story.

The film’s two main characters, 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and 15-year-old child actor turned hustler Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), meet on school picture day and immediately begin an awkward, yet charming friendship as it teeters on the edge of blossoming into something more. 

Alana and Gary set out to start their own entrepreneurial ventures. A waterbed company, Fat Bernie’s, is one of them, which eventually goes bust due to an oil crisis that swept the country. 

This was highlighted in one “lightbulb moment” scene where Alana explains to Gary that they can no longer make waterbeds because the product is made out of vinyl, which requires oil. Gary then opens up his own arcade after hearing pinball has been legalized, but Alana instead works for Joel Wachs’ mayoral campaign to kickstart her professional career. 

These little moments in the film are what make it special. Real-life historical events guide this bond forming between Alana and Gary. 

Waterbeds were a popular cultural phenomenon in the 1970s, Wachs was on the Los Angeles City Council and the oil crisis began in 1973. Viewers even saw some real-life news reports of the crisis on TV in the film. 

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman are as pure as they come. These newcomers to the film scene are a delight, and it’s a breath of fresh air seeing them act so effortlessly. 

Alana’s family in the film is also her real family, which is a great personal touch. Haim is a member of the pop band HAIM with her two other sisters, Este and Danielle. Seeing the addition of her sisters and parents made the film feel more authentic and provided a slice of their real life. 

There was one humorous scene at the beginning where Alana invites her short-lived boyfriend, Lance, to Shabbat. At the already awkward dinner, Lance announces he’s an atheist. Alana then ends the relationship, but this actually happened to the Haim family in real life

Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, made his film debut as Gary. Hoffman is only 18, but his acting chops were on display on screen as his character took up some amusing antics as an aspiring businessman trying to make big bucks. 

Gazing upon Gary and Alana’s friendship felt like you were watching someone’s real-life play out. And Anderson did this with flowing shots of the pair running across sunny California and a joyous soundtrack that transports you to the Golden State for the film’s 133-minute runtime. 

You would think both of these newcomers have had years of acting experience, but it’s only the beginning for them. 

Big names like Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn and Benny Safdie made appearances, but the spotlight was on Haim and Hoffman.

There are, however, a few critiques and concerns some viewers have with “Licorice Pizza.” The movie has been called out for glamorizing pedophilia and including uncomfortable racist scenes.

There is an age gap between Alana and Gary, but it’s never provocative or abusive. Their age difference is known from the start as 15-year-old Gary admires and vyes for Alana’s attention. 

The two of them are dysfunctional, but they never consummate the relationship and it never felt like it was going to happen. So this outrage over “pedophilia” seems uncalled for and it didn’t feel like Anderson was normalizing it. 

For a relationship that was platonic, Anderson did end the movie on the pair kissing before running off into the twilight. This scene should have been cut and it was pushing it for a movie that otherwise was friendly. It just didn’t mesh with all the scenes that came before.

There is however blatant racism towards Asian Americans. This included perpetuating stereotypes of Japanese culture and a white man who spoke in an exaggerated caricature of a Japanese accent. Weirdly enough, these “jokes” got a few laughs from people in the theater, but this trope and casual racism is tiring even if some may brush it off as just being 1970s culture. 

The 10-year age gap between Alana and Gary is central to the plot, but the anti-Asian content wasn’t essential nor did it advance the story. One of these scenes occurred at the beginning of the movie and did leave a bad taste for the remainder of the film. 

Despite this, there’s admiration for how real the main characters felt. Alana and Gary have visible acne and blemishes. The makeup and fashion were natural, and not overdone, which is often a cliche for movies taking place in the ‘70s. Viewers may want to raid Alana’s closet with her floral mini dresses, crop tops and baby tees.

By the end of this movie, the young people were acting more like adults than the adults themselves. Alana and Gary both discover themselves with their bouts of independence and comical dialogue. 

This isn’t Anderson’s best movie – “Phantom Thread” has set expectations high – but “Licorice Pizza” proves he is a master at capturing complex idiosyncrasies and flawed characters. 

Compared to action and superhero movies that have dominated cinema, it may feel to some that nothing actually happens in “Licorice Pizza,” but you have to sit back and immerse yourself in the romance and influential pop culture of the 1973 San Fernando Valley. Maybe by then, you’ll be California dreaming.

Follow Sarah on Twitter @thesarahdipity.

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