‘Licorice Pizza’: Hoffman and Haim are a winning combination in this weird, winding journey

“Licorice Pizza” (2021) – “I’m not gonna forget you.” – Gary (Cooper Hoffman)

You never forget your first crush, right?

Then again, you may, but not your first relationship. 

Gary isn’t in a relationship with Alana (Alana Haim), but he wants to be.  He tells his little brother that he’ll marry her someday.  Unfortunately, Gary – from Sherman Oaks, Calif. – has a problem about the size of the Rose Bowl and L.A. Coliseum combined.  He’s 15, and Alana – residing in nearby Encino, which is just 6.4 miles away according to Google maps – is 25.

Well, a major age difference, especially when the woman is older, can work just fine.  Comedian Nick Offerman (51) is 12 years younger than his comedienne wife Megan Mullally (63), and there’s Hugh Jackman (53) and Deborra-Lee Furness (66).  French President Emmanuel Macron (44) and Brigitte Macron (68) are a happy pair too, so comparatively, a 10-year gap is a mere pittance. 

C’est petite.

Alana (Alana Haim) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman)

Still, Gary is only 15, but he doesn’t operate like a typical teenager.  He’s an actor and also runs his mother’s public relations business, which seems fairly lucrative, or at the very least, it pays the bills.  Conversely, Alana proceeds like a directionless 18-year-old.  She – the youngest of three girls – lives with her parents, and the entire sister-triad inhabit their folks’ home.

Anyway, she works at Tiny Toes, a photography company, and Alana first meets Gary during his high school Picture Day!  Gary, who resembles a combination of Philip Seymour Hoffman (Cooper’s dad in real life) and Danny Partridge, gives his best effort as a conversationalist to win over Alana.  She’s a thin brunette – with a Marsha Brady hairstyle – who has heard every cheesy pickup line via the local pubs and burger joints for years and years.

Since Alana does not see or anticipate better options on her immediate San Fernando Valley horizon (or for whatever reason), she reluctantly meets Gary for a drink.  They form a friendship and become business partners in writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s weird, winding story that happens to be the very best comedy that this critic has seen in 2021. 

One of the year’s best films, in fact. 

Gary (Hoffman)

Anderson’s hang-out movie – set in 1973 – puts out a vibe that life is a collection of happenstances and oddities, although initially fueled by Gary Valentine’s ingenuity and resourcefulness.  He’s a go-getter who rushes toward opportunities.  Since our young hero lives in the Entertainment Capital of the World, this kid – filled with pure ambition to succeed – sometimes bumps elbows with Hollywood’s shakers. 

While this irresistible teenage force attempts to win over a mid-20s immovable object, Anderson sprinkles several surprises and a few prominent cameos (who will not be named in this review) that add vibrant cinematic sugar rushes to Gary and Alana’s journey. 

Gary’s “Avengers Assemble” gusto with his 8-year-old brother and 15-year-old friends and Alana’s varied responses to this young lad’s entrepreneurial and naive fearlessness hold our attention for two-plus hours. The aforementioned unexpected astonishments – in the form of distinctly unique sequences with peculiar banter – act as a hypnosis of sorts into this otherworld called the early 1970s.  For good measure, Anderson throws in groovy tracks that flood our senses and rival the infinitely catchy “Guardians of the Galaxy – Vol. 1” soundtrack.

What’s more, Anderson includes Alana, Gary, and the gang in an extended scene with a truck that will drop your jaw for about five minutes straight, as our damsel-in-command showcases her powers.

So, when does an actual licorice pizza enter the silver screen?  

Well, in Brent Lang’s Nov. 10, 2021 “Variety” interview with Anderson, the director says, “Growing up, there was a record-store chain in Southern California called Licorice Pizza.  It seemed like a catch-all for the feeling of the film.  I suppose if you have no reference to the store, it’s two great words that go well together and maybe capture a mood.”

It certainly does.

Admittedly, the casual pacing and the 10-year age gap between the lead characters will turn off some audiences, but for those wishing to absorb sharp – and sometimes magical – discourse on a bizarre, nonchalant ride will earn big rewards in the theatre and smiles for days…maybe years.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Written and directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim

Runtime: 133 minutes

Rated: R

Image credits: United Artists Releasing

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