Full disclosure: we’re talking black licorice here, but you still shouldn’t eat it.
Growing up in California’s San Fernando Valley circa 1973, fifteen-year old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) grifts his way through high school, the entertainment industry, and anything that looks like a lucrative opportunity; the Fred Flintstone of his time. He sets his sights upon twenty-five-year old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), the youngest of three sisters who “goes her own way” but feels she’s going nowhere in life working for her father. Over the course of several months and a looming energy crisis, Alana drifts in and out of Gary’s circle but always seems to find her way back. Even as Gary’s schemes become riskier and weirder, Alana’s attempts to resist his charms seem equally doomed.
This semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson based upon real people he knew and his own memories. Written with Alana Haim in mind, Anderson hired the entire family as Alana’s family for the film, having already directed videos for their pop rock band Haim. This left only the casting of the young Gary, but it wasn’t until Cooper Hoffman — son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman — auditioned that the core cast was complete. Reportedly influenced by films such as American Graffiti and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Anderson took great pains to recreate the look and feel of the time period, but will a snapshot of his childhood resonate with audiences?
The obvious age difference between the main characters seems circumstantial — and some viewers may take exception to it — but Gary employs his own mother in his adult business ventures while Alana reverts to her youngest-sister roll whenever things get heavy, meeting somewhere in the middle. As both Haim and Hoffman’s first film, the two have a natural chemistry that works even when the premise doesn’t; while the plot seems random at times, it always course-corrects the moment these kids reconnect. The older actors (themselves playing older actors) also have a case of the nostalgias, throwbacks within a throwback. Whether viewers recall the SoCal time period or not, there’s an honesty at work here, wafting from the screen like a candle scented with PVC and gasoline, invoking the feeling these two characters lived.
The most recent film that comes to mind employing similar elements is Jonah Hill’s Mid90s, another trying-to-figure-it-out film with kids young and old bonding in spite of themselves. Cooper Hoffman eerily mirrors his father’s quirks, especially his damnable trust-me smile; it seems assured Cooper could step into the same kinds of roles his father was known for with little effort, there for the taking. Alana embodies the no-longer-a-girl and not-yet-a-woman mystique, but her character isn’t “the magic pixie girl” the marketing posters paint her as… even if Gary Valentine initially assumes otherwise. While the story was written for muse Alana, Cooper’s Gary manages to somehow dominate the plot line, as if more weight was shifted to him in the editing room. An all-too serious Sean Penn and an over-the-top Bradley Cooper stir the pot further, but the kids own the picture and viewer’s hearts.
While the intentions appear pure, there are a few glaring problems. The biggest holdback on the entire film is the title itself, which may be off-putting to a potential audience when coupled with the ad posters; the pinball backboard design used for the soundtrack works far better informing the film than the attitude-giving Polaroid snapshot next to Alana’s muscle car. There are also “gags” highlighting stereotypes that feel offensive — while earning zero comeuppance — involving an idiot who thinks he sounds Japanese enough to be understood without knowing the language; no one should laugh, but too many people will. Oh, and the title comes from a record store chain in the valley that no longer exists, although nothing in the film references the store itself; count your blessings, because the working title was reportedly Soggy Bottoms (insert preferred “SpongeBob SquarePants” joke here).
Licorice Pizza is rated R for language, sexual material, some drug use, and butchering the name “Streisand.”
Three skull recommendation out of four