Movie Review: ‘Licorice Pizza’

Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2021 “Licorice Pizza,” a heartwarming coming-of-age comedy drama set in 1970s southern California, arrived at the Hamilton Theater this past weekend. The film, originally released in November of 2021, is nominated for three Academy Awards – and for good reason. 

Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, plays the charming and precocious 15 year-old actor and entrepreneur Gary Valentine. His love interest, the 25 year-old school photographer Alana Kane, is played by musician Alana Haim, whose performance is her first major acting role. These two debutants give surprisingly strong performances given their lack of experience. The rest of the cast gives similarly strong performances, with the biggest stars appearing in smaller roles (Bradley Cooper as a hotheaded hairdresser, Sean Penn as an aging movie star and rival for Alana’s affection). 

Alana is 10 years older than Gary, which serves as the major impediment to their relationship. This age gap might scare some potential moviegoers off, but Anderson is able to make the story heartwarming rather than unsettling. The film is surprisingly chaste for a story of young love, and Gary’s affection for Alana is fairly sweet and innocent.

Compared to most high-paced films today, the story lacks urgency, with the characters’ relationship evolving through a series of low-stakes episodes rather than through one unifying narrative. For me, this is a strength rather than a weakness of the movie. It takes you back to a moment when it seemed as if you had all the time in the world and the only thing that really mattered was if your crush liked you back. The film’s relatively methodical pacing may not be for everyone, but I enjoyed being sucked into the film’s world for a little over two hours. 

If you’re nostalgic for the 1970s, you will be happily transported to a time of rotary phones, water beds and weird looking headphones. The costumes and sets feel completely immersive, which is one of the biggest strengths of the movie. The 1973 oil crisis serves as a backdrop for the second half of the film — there’s a funny moment where Alana has to steer her truck down a hill after running out of gas. Anderson isn’t interested in making a political statement, but there are hints at the tense political atmosphere at the time (one of Alana’s love interests declares at their Jewish family dinner that he is an atheist, for God wouldn’t allow so much suffering in the world). Alana later volunteers for a charismatic candidate for mayor (Benny Safdie) and adopts idealistic notions of changing the world, but it seems more as if she is just searching for something to do with her life rather than having found her true calling.

If you are a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, you will easily recognize his signature filmmaking style and his stunning use of long takes. However, you don’t need to be a nostalgic or a movie buff to enjoy this movie. If you have 133 minutes to spare, go see “Licorice Pizza” and be transported through space and time from freezing Hamilton, N.Y. to the sunny San Fernando Valley of the early ’70s.