‘Licorice Pizza’—Alana Haim Dazzles In Anderson’s 70s Nostalgia Trip: Review

‘Licorice Pizza’—Alana Haim Dazzles In Anderson’s 70s Nostalgia Trip

Paul Thomas Anderson trains a lens back on his native Los Angeles with Licorice Pizza—a heavy slice of nostalgia topped with absurdist comedy. 


“Licorice Pizza” describes an unholy concoction of things that shouldn’t go together. The mere suggestion of such a flavour pairing is bound to turn the stomach of even the most open minded diner, and yet this isn’t exactly a law that’s going to be enforced by anyone. Nobody is going to lock you up for putting licorice on top of a pizza. What they will lock you up for, however, is having a romance with a minor, and that just so happens to be the premise of Anderson’s latest dark comedy.

Alana Kane (Alana Haim) tells her prospective suitor—the fifteen-year-old who is ten years her junior Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman)—so on their first meeting. “I can be your friend, but I can’t be your girlfriend—that would be illegal” she says, being stern but not altogether dismissive as the pair stroll through the early morning California sun to the blissful sound of “July Tree” by Nina Simone (which is played in its entirety, capturing the carefree days of youth whilst letting the audience know that a seed of sorts is being planted). 

The tentative pacing of their first encounter is at odds with the swiftness of Gary’s advances. “I met the girl I’m going to marry someday” he tells his brother mere moments after their first meeting. A semi-successful child actor, Gary is used to the world being his oyster. He carries himself with faux-swagger, ordering two cokes on their first ‘non-date’ with a degree of unearned suaveness. One day, as he sits in line for an audition amongst a string of prepubescent actors, it becomes clear that he has grown too big for his boots in an all too literal sense.

It’s on his way home from this audition and realisation that he walks past a waterbed store, finding himself seduced by the product (or, more likely the flirtatious saleswoman). This leads to Gary getting involved in a string of sleazy business decisions aimed at kick starting the next stage of his adult life. These ventures also go hand-in-hand with a sexual coming of age which thankfully never materialises, but is the real comedic hook of the film.

Upon its limited release in New York and California, Licorice Pizza has been criticised for the age gap between its two lead characters, which quickly became the film’s main talking point (frustrating, when there is a joke at Japan’s expense which is handled with little tact and deserves far more critical attention). This age gap is in fact crucial to the parallels taking place in Licorice Pizza, and it is at these moments that the film reaches its highest moments of pathos. Both Gary and Alana find themselves stuck at times in their lives where they want out, but in opposite directions; Gary wishes to grow older, have adult relationships, and to start a new career, whereas Alana is on the limit of being past it, having arrived at adulthood still living with her parents and in a dead end job.

(Licorice Pizza courtesy of Universal Pictures) Cooper Hoffman as Gary (left) and Alana Haim as Alana (right) run through the suburbs.

Where Gary seeks growth, Alana wants to regress. Played to perfection by Alana Haim—one third of the band Haim, and one fifth of the Haim family (who all feature in Licorice Pizza as parodies of themselves, and were once also a band called Rockenhaim)—Alana is a ball of pent up adolescent rage. A torrent of unpredictable energy, the impact she has on the tone of the film is hard to overstate as she stomps around, asserting herself in crude one-liners (“if you’re circumcised that means you’re fucking Jewish!”).

The dissatisfaction the two feel might just be why they spend so much of the screen time running. In one scene, David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” plays as Gary races to the gas station to stock up amidst the 1973 Oil Crisis. Bowie’s song feels perfectly suited to our protagonists’ desires to leave behind their current reality, but finding the fantasy in front of them to be anything but a convincing escape. With nowhere to go, they run endlessly through the streets, buoyed by the joy they feel when with each other, but ever failing to reach their destination. Both characters suffer from a persistent failure to launch.

There is an airy-ness to this depiction of adolescence in 70s California which evokes the mood of Ham On Rye (Tyler Taormina’s surreal depiction of small town teenagers seeking self-worth through their peers), and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (directed by Quentin Tarantino). The latter film succeeded in returning to a Hollywood of the past where movies loomed large in the cultural zeitgeist, and their stars were society’s heroes. Bradley Cooper plays one such ‘hero’ in Licorice Pizza, clad in white and in a near constant search for “tail” (even remarking that “tail” will be the thing that kills him). Cooper’s cameo definitively hijacks the movie for the short passage he is in, serving as a potent reminder that the fame and fortune Gary and Alana seek doesn’t look so pretty in practice. 


(Licorice Pizza courtesy of Universal Pictures) Cooper Hoffman as Gary at the launch of “Fat Bernie’s Pinball Palace”

Such goals are what the characters may openly wish for (Alana even has a flirtation with a past-his-prime movie star), but not what they secretly yearn for. This is most beautifully captured in a fleeting scene where both characters lay on top of a waterbed, their silhouettes illuminated by the glowing fluid beneath them. In that moment, as Gary lays next to Alana (passed out from booze and grass) it seems that what he truly wants isn’t just romance (or even “tail”). What he wants is something altogether more abstract and personal. Adolescents are rarely sincere, and fittingly, the beating heart of Anderson’s film is this emotional core which presents itself rarely, but with purpose.

The Verdict

Licorice Pizza is a nostalgic look at adolescence, and a comforting return to the 1970s which captures the senses. The airy and comedic tone hides a tender coming of age story that’s well worth a bite. 

Words by Jake Abatan

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