James Jay Edwards

Paul Thomas Anderson Writes a Love Letter to the Seventies with Licorice Pizza

(Licorice Pizza, courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

James Jay Edwards reviews Licorice Pizza, a coming-of-age comedy-drama film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)  


Borrowed from an Abbott and Costello routine, Licorice Pizza is a slang term for a vinyl record. You know, one of those old things from the seventies and eighties that have been making a comeback with hipsters? It’s also the name of a store that sold said records back in their heyday until the chain was bought out by Sam Goody and Musicland.

And even though it has very little to do with vinyl records (but is set in the freewheeling seventies), Licorice Pizza is also the newest movie from cinematic auteur Paul Thomas Anderson.


(Licorice Pizza, theatrical release poster, courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Licorice Pizza is about a fifteen-year-old child actor named Gary Valentine (the fresh-faced Cooper Hoffman, so new to it all that his IMDB page doesn’t even have a photo at the time of this writing) who, while waiting in line for school pictures, meets a twenty-five-year-old photo assistant named Alana Kane (Alana Haim from the indie rock band Haim). Despite the age difference, the confident boy asks the young woman out, and thus begins a relationship/friendship that includes everything from going on awkward dates to starting a business.


(Licorice Pizza, courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that, aside from Boogie Nights, I am pretty lukewarm towards most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies. But Boogie Nights is probably my personal favorite movie of all time, so I follow P.T.A.’s career closely, just in case he can catch lightning in a bottle for a second time. And he almost does with Licorice Pizza.

Licorice Pizza is very much in the same vein as Boogie Nights, just minus the cocaine and sex. Since it takes place in the San Fernando Valley in the seventies, the movie’s events do occur in the same universe, and one does almost expect Jack Horner and Amber Waves to make an appearance (but they don’t). It’s more of a feel-good and chaste movie than Boogie Nights, and while Licorice Pizza is not exactly a happy-go-lucky experience, it’s not nearly as grim of one as Boogie Nights, either.


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It’s also one of Anderson’s least pretentious movies, which is a big plus. It’s almost like a simple slice-of-life story about two people who seem to belong together, even though they come from completely different worlds. There’s very little plot to it, it just follows Alana and Gary around during the ups and downs of their time together (and apart). Even though there’s not a whole lot of story, it’s never boring, which is a big testament to the charisma and chemistry of Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. It’s only when the numbers are said aloud—twenty-five and fifteen—that the movie seems a little unseemly. But hey, it was the seventies.

And P.T.A. is gonna be P.T.A. The filmmaker has a definite style, from long one-takes to impeccable production design. And even though Haim and Hoffman are newcomers to acting (and much of the rest of the cast is composed of rookie thespians), the ensemble is peppered with bonafide superstars in bit roles, names like Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly (as Herman Munster, no less), Tom Waits, and Bennie Safdie. Anderson even gets Alana’s bandmates/sisters (and more of the family) in on the act, as well as his own superstar partner Maya Rudolph.


(Licorice Pizza, courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

While Licorice Pizza is not the spiritual soulmate to Boogie Nights that I might have been hoping for, it is a quality movie. It’s a quirky story that is more about a friendship than a romance, and it’s all wrapped up in a period piece setting that is never too overbearing about it. The fashions, hairstyles, and music all say “seventies,” but don’t scream it. In my (not so) humble opinion, it’s P.T.A.’s second best movie … but that probably says more about my cinematic relationship with the director than it does about Licorice Pizza.

Licorice Pizza is in theaters now in select theaters and will open wide this Christmas.



Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.


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