Everything in life seems to come easy to Gary Valentine. The young actor has his mom working for him, a seemingly endless amount of side hustles, and the charm of James Bond himself. From the moment Cooper Hoffman debuts on screen, one thing is for certain; he is a star, and he translates that charisma into a character absolutely bursting with life. Even upon meeting Alana Kane, he wastes no time in asking her out to a restaurant where everybody knows his name. He’s smooth, and he knows it just like he knows every role he’s ever played, commercial and film alike. Everything the audience needs to know about Gary is presented organically within the first 5 minutes of meeting the character, and from there on, selling the rest of the film is a walk in the park for the master that is Paul Thomas Anderson. As charismatic as Gary is, where Licorice Pizza really soars is his relationship with Alana, in an equally brilliant debut from Alana Haim. The beauty of this film is its warm embrace towards an often times cold feeling. It’s a free-flowing experience that coasts to the finish line, leaving its viewer to soak up each moment in a special manner.
Alana seeks validation from all those around her, in a seemingly empty quest towards fulfillment. Whether it’s the aspiring politician, a pompous misogynistic actor, or Gary himself, it’s as if she can’t help herself. She’s a 25-year-old who is simply lost, and looks elsewhere for guidance. Alana, the one who easily confronts a possible creep/assassin/stalker, the one who could design advertisements for Gary on the fly, or sell a waterbed to just about anybody. Alana, the one who can steer a box truck down the hills of the Valley backwards with no gas in the tank in one of the best, most tense scenes of 2021. Quite frankly, Alana is a straight up badass. Yet in her interior moments, Anderson shows her to be clearly conflicted in some of the more relatable moments of the year. Lashing out at family, rebelling however one feels most adequately equipped to do so. But on the outside, few would ever be able to tell. She’s the only one shown to be able to keep Gary in check, and never lets anyone forget it through her hysterical quips and jabs at all who surround her. Haim brings a truly special performance to the table in this film, and she elevates herself to one of the most entertaining characters in Anderson’s entire career.
Gary is also lost, but he seems to keep it together better (except when his world crumbles around him). When being arrested, his utter silence quickly reminds you that he’s just a 15-year-old kid who can get in over his head. When he opens his own pinball palace, he seemingly gets off on the power rush of just being able to remove customers at will because he’s upset. He bounces from idea to idea like it’s nothing. It’s in these moments that you remember Gary isn’t malicious or manipulative like the other actors we see in the film, he’s just a child. Yet Hoffman plays this character like somebody who has it all figured out. And this relates to a common theme present throughout all of Licorice Pizza. Effortlessly, Anderson is able to paint a vivid portrait of characters who for one reason or another, are unable to confront their true selves. From Joel Wachs, a mayoral candidate who is afraid to reveal his sexual orientation, to Jack Holden, an actor who clearly has some demons but keeps himself shadowy and mysterious for the allure, there’s a fear of truth among everyone. Both Alana and Gary, as much as they hate to admit it, seem to be lost and will bury themselves in anything or anyone surrounding them in hopes of escape.
With the way Haim and Hoffman play off one another in the film, the catharsis of the last 20 minutes or so hits that much harder. Because if Licorice Pizza feels like anything, it’s authentic and true to its characters. It’s an ode to a simpler time, in both location and in emotion. While problems such as the gas shortage were occurring when the film takes place, Anderson roots his story in a time and place where the Valley feels alive, everybody seems to know every passerby, and everyone is just looking for somewhere to go. Yet the film is also a time machine back to the youthful exuberance of childhood and young adulthood. It takes a hyper specific situation and turns it into one which ultimately feels universal and widely experienced among most of its audience. Sure, it’s not common to take a cross country flight with a friend for a promotional tour you’re a part of, but to see a teenager rebelling against an adult that feels particularly arrogant is something Anderson knows will strike chords among audiences. Its moments like these that are perhaps Anderson at his best.
There’s no shortage of deeply memorable side characters to round out Licorice Pizza. Bradley Cooper is barely in the film for longer than ten minutes, but he alone is worth the price of admission. From Harriet Sansom Harris calling Alana a fierce pit bull in a casting to the rest of the Haim family arguing over Skyler Gisondo’s religious views, every scene serves a distinct purpose. Anderson subtly but assuredly opens up his version of the Valley to audiences in hopes of reminding us, and himself, of a bygone era. Growing up should be a time looked back upon fondly, full of wild adventures with friends and falling head over heels from time to time. It’s a time for finding oneself, even if it seems like everywhere you turn is a dead end. Sometimes, we forget to look at the person right in front of us as the one who can lead the way. In many ways, Licorice Pizza feels like a hazy dreamscape, but it couldn’t be closer to a true slice of life.