Throwback To Summer In The Golden State, A Licorice Pizza Review

Licorice Pizza is many critics' film of the year, but what makes it so memorable?
Plane Scene from Licorice Pizza
Image Source: The New Republic

One of the biggest films of 2021 has got to be the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza. The coming-of-age comedy-drama stars Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman.

Licorice Pizza is the ninth feature film from director Paul Thomas Anderson, which takes place in the San Fernando Valley in 1973. It was released in the US on December 25, 2021.

Licorice Pizza Bradley Cooper Cameo
Image Source: Showbiz Cheat Sheet

The World of Licorice Pizza

For fans of Anderson’s, many of whom have been patiently waiting for a follow-up to 2017’s Academy Award-winning Phantom Thread, this is more than a welcome return to form by the prolific director.

Licorice Pizza takes us back to 1973 and lays us neatly in one of the most historically accurate settings ever set to film. Life in California is sunny and opportunities abound. 

We follow our two main characters, Gary Valentine, played by Cooper Hoffman, son of the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Alana Kane, played by Alana Haim of the well-known family band. 

Licorice Pizza World
Image Source: GQ

Anderson wanted there to be an unmistakable 1970s vibe to this film, and he comes through with ease. This is, after all, the same man who brought us Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice. This film too, features great needle-drops by PTA, as he mixes in Paul McCartney, David Bowie, and Chuck Berry for an immersive experience.

Still, these are not those films. This is much more light-hearted and much less cynical. For a man 25 years into his career, it is refreshing to see that nostalgia can exist without a twinge of guilt or shame included.

This film feels like a summer day. The same summer when you couldn’t wait to get outside and see your friends. Remember the way you would all meet on your bikes, and before you knew where the time had gone, your mother was calling you home?

For Gary and his pals, this is their world. They are not hindered by expectations or bills yet, and they reveal their happiness and ambition to us. Alana, on the other hand, hasn’t always been successful. She is an unmarried young woman in the early 1970s, and the pressure on her is real.

Truck from Licorice Pizza
Image Source: The Stanford Daily

Alana and Gary

Perhaps it is Gary, with his childlike optimism and sense of adventure, that brings Alana towards him. Still, their love comes with turmoil, both are constantly getting hurt, and consider trading each other up for someone better.

This adds a dimension of extra emotion to the character of Gary Valentine. He shares the bravado and confidence of his late father, while also carrying this youthful eagerness and innocence with him.

The story meanders and never ends up anywhere typical. This film is intriguing, Anderson has sort of sculpted the modern romantic comedy to his own specifications. At many turns, it does feel familiar, funny, and nostalgic. At other moments, boredom, and a feeling of rudderless young adult angst course through the screen.

At the beginning of the film, Alana is deeply disillusioned. She is 25 and works as a photographer’s assistant. She helps prep the local high school students for their yearbook photos.

This is where she encounters a noticeably confident Gary Valentine. Gary cues us into his existence, a privileged one based on the life of a real-life producer and Tom Hanks collaborator, Gary Goetzman.

Gary is a successful actor, a childhood star who also dabbles in the odd business. Alana is understandably impressed, as she immediately hitches her wagon to Gary’s. 

What brings Alana and Gary together is their opposite places in life. Gary is a young boy, with a successful acting career and business. Alana, on the other hand, has no real accomplishments of her own.

Alana on her own
Image Source: The New York Times

Alana, On Her Own

Alana is actually pretty directionless. She doesn't seem to have any interests, hobbies, or goals. This sets her apart from Gary, who is self-assured and ambitious.

The ease with which Gary coasts through auditions and business decisions is felt by Alana. Still, she is easily distracted, and when she is introduced to Gary’s attractive costar, Lance, played by The Righteous Gemstones alumni, Skyler Gisondo, she is captivated. 

From here the story takes a realistic turn, as life is often surprising. Our girl Alana stays on screen while Gary goes off with his friends. Next, we are introduced, as is Lance, to Alana’s big Jewish family.

For purposes of chemistry and just plain laughs, her sisters are played by her real-life sisters, Este and Danielle. Her mother and father are also played by their real Haim counterparts, Donna and Moti, respectively. This helps the film root itself in reality, which can be intoxicating when executed correctly.

When Alana’s father asks Lance to partake in the blessing, the young man cites his belief in atheism as the reason he simply cannot participate. He is hurriedly removed from the home, and when Alana returns, she is ridiculed by her family for her lack of direction and her poor choices, both in boys and in life.

Still, Alana searches. She is soon reunited with Gary, who makes sure to ask about her relationship situation this time. When she responds that she doesn’t have a boyfriend, the two share a knowing smile, and they continue on.

Alana and Gary meet
Image Source: The Jewish Exponent

The Story Continues

Soon, Alana is center stage in a new entrepreneurial scheme by Gary. He opens his own waterbed company and utilizes Alana as the bikini-clad model who will show the new beds off at the Palladium. 

We see our two protagonists work together for a time, seemingly on the same page. That lasts for a few scenes before Gary meets a cute girl his own age and basically starts ignoring Alana. 

Downtrodden, Alana uses Gary’s Hollywood connections to break into her own acting career. When she meets a larger-than-life actor/producer, Jack Holden, who is inspired by the famous William Holden and played by Sean Penn, she knows she has made the right decision.

Many drinks later, Holden forgets about her and attempts to complete a motorcycle jump outside a local LA restaurant to appease his adoring fans. Alana is situated on the back of the bike but falls off before he can even get going. He completes the jump, to the applause of the crowd, and Gary witnesses it as well, rescuing Alana and reaffirming their relationship.

Up until now, the film has been relatively tame, funny at times, but always believable. The two leads, this film being both of their feature debuts, have amazing chemistry and clearly went into this process together supporting one another. 

Jon Peters flips out
Image Source: KCRW

The Incomparable Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters

The waterbed business is booming and soon, we are finally dropped off at what must be the funniest sequence in the entire movie. Notorious jerk and the big shot Hollywood producer behind 1976’s A Star Is Born, Jon Peters, played to perfection by Bradley Cooper has just ordered one of these fancy new beds from Gary. This is a fairly meta nod to Bradley Cooper's role in directing and starring in 2018's remake of A Star Is Born.

When Gary arrives late at Peters' house, the would-be host unloads on the former child actor. Gary explains that the gas crisis is making it harder to be on time for things. Citing his unpreparedness as utter disrespect, Peters accosts and threatens the boy if anything is messed up inside of his home. Gary reluctantly agrees, but his face changes when Peters threatens to kill his little brother.

When Peters leaves in his Ferrari, he discovers that he too is out of gas and returns to the house. Yeah, the Gas Crisis touches all. Meanwhile, teenage Gary’s mind turns to revenge and he and Alana decide to leave the house from the water bed running out on the carpet of the mogul’s home.

As they try to escape, a visibly intoxicated Peters appears again, assaults his valet for the gas oversight, and then forces Alana and Gary to take him to the gas station. He is not aware of the vandalism that has taken place inside of his home.

The Uhaul truck, piloted expertly by Alana, isn’t very agile, and soon Peters employs himself as her personal savior, getting very close to her, and creeping her out as he demonstrates the proper way to feather the clutch. 

Peters leaves the truck to get gas. He then holds a lighter to the face of an unsuspecting customer while he steals the man’s gas.  Our heroes, understandably, leave Peters to rot at the gas station, and then decide to pass by his parked Ferrari. Gary immediately hops out and desecrates the beautiful cherry red sports car with a golf club. 

Later on, we see a drunken Peters return, although he does not notice our heroes. His rage turns to love as he spots two beautiful girls, and asks them, “Do you like peanut butter sandwiches?”

Cooper’s performance as Peters is short and sweet, yet also quite possibly one of the most entertaining cameos I have ever seen in a major motion picture. The film, at this point, really holds onto the stress and anxiety of being a kid and not knowing when the other shoe is going to drop.

There are some major notable moments here. A long vehicular sequence towards the end of the second act really sets this movie apart from others like it. When the large truck used by Alana and Gary to deliver the waterbed runs out of gas, it is Alana who saves the day. This happens right after Gary destroys Jon Peters’ Ferrari, and the couple must escape before the psycho appears again. 

High in a hilly suburb of Los Angeles, Alana throws the stick shift behemoth into neutral, using the gravity from the hill to help her coast the next mile to the gas station. What follows is a gut-wrenchingly crazy scene in which we watch Alana pilot this massive truck all the way to the gas station, much to the approval of Gary, who cements Alana’s status as “hardcore.”

Joel Wachs as played by Benny Safdie
Image Source: GQ

The Third Act

The third act of the film centers around a political theme. Alana, fearing her attraction to Gary showcases a flaw in her life, begins to seek higher employment. She signs up to volunteer for Joel Wachs' mayoral campaign. She soon falls for the young candidate, hoping that an older man is just what she needs. 

However, things become complicated, as they often do, when she realizes he is actually a closeted gay man. She unwittingly discerns this when, one night, Wachs, played by Benny Safdie, is out to eat with his boyfriend.

When reporters and strangers alike take notice of the two males eating dinner, Joel panics and calls his assistant, Alana. He begs her to act as if she is the man’s girlfriend, and to make it obvious, ask them to leave the restaurant together. 

The two dejected would-be lovers commiserate over their shared disappointment. Alana starts to realize all love is complicated. 

As she makes her way towards the opening of another of Gary’s business ventures, this time a pinball palace, she throws all of her preconceptions about him out the window. She remembers how he makes her feel and she runs through the streets to find him.

But he is gone. Gary has talked to other Haim sisters, who are enjoying the pinball palace, and they advise him to head to the campaign headquarters, where he hopes she will be. He pouts in front of the dark building, pounding on the glass door forlornly, even though he knows no one is there.

As darkness settles on the streets of Los Angeles, Gary heads back to the pinball palace, head down, wondering if he really has lost Alana, this time for good. When he puts his head up, he recognizes a beautiful girl from afar. She is the 25-year old girl of his dreams, the woman he is “going to marry someday.”

Image Source: AwardsWatch

They both begin running towards each other and both fall over when they hug, a slapstick reunion for the two friends. 

When they enter the arcade, Gary grabs the microphone and introduces Alana as “Alana Valentine”. She is embarrassed by this and voices her disgust, but rolls her eyes and smiles sideways as the camera leaves her face.

The two exit the arcade hand in hand and just before the camera shuts off for good, Alana looks into his eyes: “I love you, Gary.” It's so simple but so telling of the relationship. They have not always been loyal, or even present in each other's lives. One thing they do have, however, is conviction in the strength of their feelings for one another. And that can be a beautifully hopeful thing.

Joseph Poulos is a freelance writer from Michigan.

No Saves yet. Share it with your friends.

Write Your Diary

Get Free Access To Our Publishing Resources

Independent creators, thought-leaders, experts and individuals with unique perspectives use our free publishing tools to express themselves and create new ideas.

Start Writing