Paul Thomas Anderson grew up in the suburban L.A. sprawl known as the San Fernando Valley and has set several of his films there (notably Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love). His latest is a flashback to 1973, a kaleidoscopic series of vignettes involving a high-school hustler (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper) and an “older woman” (Alana Haim) who engage in a series of comedic misadventures together.
There is no obvious storyline. The filmmaker immerses us in a particular time and place he loves that enables him to drop names that may have no meaning to most of his audience (like the once-swanky restaurant Tail O’ the Cock, or the title establishment, a fondly remembered used-record shop) as he spins his entertaining tall-tale.
Hoffman is endearing as a teenage misfit who creates his own yellow brick road and finds a 20-something partner (Haim) to skip alongside him. He seizes an opportunity to sell waterbeds and takes it as far as he can before moving on to his next brainstorm, opening a pinball parlor. At one point he meets a charismatic older man (said to be inspired by William Holden and played by Sean Penn) and falls under his boozy spell. A short time later he gets tacit permission from hair stylist-turned-producer Jon Peters to steal his truck, which leads to a hair-raising action scene through the hills of Encino. Then his partner turns to more serious matters as she volunteers in the election campaign of city councilman Joel Wachs (played by filmmaker Benny Safdie), even though he is not the knight in shining armor he appears to be.
To reduce Licorice Pizza to an outline of its narrative is to undermine—and underestimate—its spontaneity and charm. Unpretentiously filmed (and looking great in the 70mm prints in circulation) the movie has a what-the-hell attitude that’s infectious and offers star-making parts to its youthful leads. Cooper Hoffman is effortlessly likable but only time will tell if Hoffman has the chops to follow in his father’s footsteps. Haim is part of a sister-act vocal group that is already enjoying great success with Anderson directing their music videos.
Anderson also has a Fellini-esque eye for odd and interesting characters who populate his films. Some of them have an obvious connection, like radio talker Tim Conway Jr., whose famous father was a performing partner of the director’s dad, Ernie Anderson. (His stint as a horror-movie host in Cleveland, Ohio explains the name of the younger Anderson’s company, Ghoulardi Productions.) Others, like the woman who stands out in one scene as a talent agent (Harriet Sansom Harris), justify their presence through their look, voice, or personality.
I had fun watching Licorice Pizza, an all-too-rare quality that no other year-end release can match. For that I am grateful that someone wrote Paul Thomas Anderson a blank check to make such an idiosyncratic, highly personal film.