Some consider Boogie Nights to be Paul Thomas Anderson’s finest film. Others cite There Will Be Blood as his career-defining achievement. My favorite for the longest time remains one of his most underappreciated: Punch-Drunk Love. It’s hard to explain my admiration for the film, but few cinematic romances have been more unusual or honest. Licorice Pizza doesn’t merely recapture that unusual honesty. His latest film surpasses everything that’s come before. Given the strength of his filmography, calling Licorice Pizza Anderson’s best movie is a bold statement. Not everyone may agree, but Anderson has made a modern classic as strangely appetizing as its title.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was a regular player in Anderson’s films until his untimely death. Licorice Pizza marks the film debut of his son, Cooper Hoffman, who comfortably slips into the role of Gary Valentine. The film’s true discovery, though, is Alana Haim. Coming from a musical background, Haim formed a band with her sisters, Este and Danielle. Anderson directed some of their music videos, writing Licorice Pizza with Alana in mind. Este and Danielle also star as Alana’s sisters along with their real-life parents, Mordechai and Donna. Although Haim plays a character close to home, it never feels like she’s playing herself. In her first feature, Haim gives one of the most authentic performances of recent memory.
Working as a photographer’s assistant, the 25-year-old Alana catches the eye of the 15-year-old Gary. While Licorice Pizza takes place in the laidback 70s, that age difference still might sound problematic to some. In another film, it probably would be. The relationship is handled in a surprisingly genuine fashion, however. Although there’s an attraction from the get-go, Gary and Alana spend most of the film as platonic friends with something more slowly growing underneath. When the make-or-break moment comes for their relationship, the outcome not only feels earned, but incredibly satisfying.
You could call Gary and Alana an opposite attract couple, but their relationship is more layered than the average romantic comedy. While Gary is significantly younger, he’s accomplished more than most college graduates. Before even turning sixteen, he’s already starred alongside a Lucille Ball stand-in and started multiple businesses. Where Gary’s mother works for him, Alana still lives with her parents. She’s accomplished little and is still trying to lock down a career path. Although Gary appears more confident, Alana comes off as more mature. She’s looking for structure while Gary carelessly lives one day at a time. Sitting next to a row of kid actors, we can see that Gary is getting too old for his usual shenanigans. Gary and Alana oddly balance each other out in a romance full of unexpected twists, turns, and cameos.
Sean Penn pops up as a William Holden caricature who Alana is briefly drawn to. The scene-stealer is Bradley Cooper as Barbra Streisand’s former partner/hairdresser, Jon Peters. While his screen time is limited, Cooper is equal parts hilarious and terrifying in an uproarious performance. If Anderson doesn’t give Cooper a spin-off film, perhaps Kevin Smith would be interested based on his experiences with Peters. As much fun as Cooper is, Licorice Pizza belongs to Haim, Hoffman, and Mr. Anderson.
The title Licorice Pizza derives from a vintage chain of California record shops. The name works on another level, however. Like an actual pizza, it’s hard to imagine anybody not savoring every moment of this delectable film. Sure, licorice is a bizarre topping that’ll make some hesitant, but it gives the film its unique flavor. Licorice Pizza might not be Anderson’s most revolutionary or technically achieving film. In terms of heart, joy, and sheer rewatchability, though, this is a meal I’ll never tire of.