Licorice Pizza film review: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is a sweet treat

Licorice Pizza (Universal)
Licorice Pizza (Universal)

It’s 1973 and stuff happens in the San Fernando Valley as a twentysomething woman falls for a teenage boy. As I’d be the first to admit, the plot for Paul Thomas Anderson’s new dramedy sounds inconsequential and even creepy. But give budding lovers Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) a chance. You have NOT met their types before and the way in which they’re delicious is beyond sweet.

In car-obsessed California, Alana is a photographer’s assistant who lacks drive. She’s an object of lust for part-time entrepreneur, Gary, who thrums with pedal to the metal energy (even though he’s fighting a losing battle with acne and has recently ballooned in weight.) Oblivious to a looming oil crisis looming and political skulduggery, Gary is obsessed with sex and money. Alana, for so many reasons, decides he’s not boyfriend material. That said, something about him intrigues her and the two outsiders become sort of best friends.

The leads (both newcomers; both nominated for Golden Globes) are perfection. 30 year old Haim, a member of the rock band Haim, is a natural. She makes up for all the stiff and self-conscious musicians who’ve ever buggered up a perfectly good movie. Yep, like Kris Kristofferson and Lady Gaga, Haim is the anti Mick Jagger.

And it would be an understatement to say that Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, has inherited his dad’s talent. Poor Michael Gandolfini (son of James, who shone in 2021’s The Many Saints of Newark). This award’s season, if you had to give a prize to the gifted-son-of-a-tragically-no-longer-with-us-star, you’d send it Cooper’s way.

The twists and turns in the script seems desultory. That is, until you realise the whole point of Licorice Pizza is to demonstrate that most heterosexual adult males suck. Alana catches the eye of a range of fully grown men, all outrageously (and hilariously) self-absorbed, including Bradley Cooper’s volatile hairdresser Jon Peters, and Sean Penn’s ageing actor Jack Holden. Finally, she meets a caring, non-preening guy. Guess what? He’s gay.

Anderson’s not presenting us with a black and white universe (Alana has an ex, who seems decent enough). Anderson is suggesting that, in a culture that actively encourages straight men to be entitled, predatory and/or macho, maturity is not something that necessarily comes with age. The 51 year old director has said his movie doesn’t have a provocative bone in its body. He’s bluffing.

He’s also revisiting old themes. Licorice Pizza – like his masterpiece, Magnolia – is fascinated by how children are packaged for public consumption. Where Magnolia revolves around a gruelling TV show (What Do Kids Know?), a crucial fact about Gary is that he’s a former child actor, barely hanging onto his career. Anderson shows that being a celebrity at an early age, doesn’t have to screw you up. Gary, despite or perhaps because of all the showbiz madness he’s experienced, is fearless around bullies.

That quality is what Alana and the audience come to love. Gary is never presented as a “hottie” and there are no sex scenes (which is why this romance doesn’t feel creepy). But his fight to be viewed as cute by the woman he adores is a moving one.

Anderson, as ever, shoots his actors in a way that’s blissfully casual yet precise. He only makes one directorial blunder, clunkingly signposting a “running through LA” motif. Paul, we don’t need the flashbacks. We get it!

That aside, all’s right with this world. What do kids know? Gary knows a lot and he and Alana – who do indeed spend half the movie sprinting – are one hell of a dynamic duo.

133 mins, cert 15

Out now