“Licorice Pizza” begins with a bang: A cherry bomb goes off in a high school restroom. It ends with a detonation nowhere near as loud but with more shock waves. “I love you,” one character says to another.
What comes in between is wayward, unhurried, and closely observed. Close observation is a specialty of Paul Thomas Anderson, who wrote and directed “Licorice Pizza.” The movie is set in Southern California in the 1970s. (The title comes from a much-loved local record-store chain of the era.) Southern California and the ‘70s are Anderson specialties, too. Think “Boogie Nights”(1997) and “Inherent Vice” (2014).
So “Licorice Pizza” is an ode to a very particular place and time: the San Fernando Valley, when gas was still being guzzled and beds first being filled with water. The lovingly laid-on ‘70s look is definitely one of the stars of the movie. All praise to production designer Florencia Martin. Yet “Licorice Pizza” is no less an ode to two very particular people.
Gary Valentine is 15, an aging child actor, all hustle and scheme. Ten years older, he’d be a sleaze. Now he’s an ungainly charmer, more Ferris Bueller than Milo Minderbinder, though Gary definitely has elements of each. So what if he’s pimply and plump and has an awful haircut, even by ‘70s standards? He’s full of chatty, chipper confidence and even looks a bit like a very young Brian Wilson. He maybe looks more like someone else, a favorite actor of Anderson’s, Philip Seymour Hoffman. His son, Cooper Hoffman, is making his acting debut as Gary. The casting is spot on. Hoffman fits the role with double-knit snugness.
Hoffman would own the movie, except that playing the other very particular person is Alana Haim (of the band Haim). She’s making her feature-film debut, but you’d never know it. There’s an inwardness to her screen presence that can’t be taught. “I’m cooler than you,” her character, Alana Kane, tells Gary. “Don’t forget it.” She’s right, and he never does.
Alana is 25. She works as an assistant in a photographer’s studio and still lives with her parents and two sisters (played by Haim’s real-life parents and real-life sisters, the latter of whom are her Haim bandmates). There’s this sense of sadness to the movie’s Alana. She’s not desperate, but she understands what desperation is. “You’re sweet, Gary,” she tells him soon after they meet. A long pause follows. “You’re going to be rich and in a mansion by the time you’re 16. I’m going to be taking photos of kids for their yearbooks until 30. You’ll never remember me.”
Alana shouldn’t be so sure. “I met the girl I’m going to marry,” Gary announces to his kid brother. (She came to his high school, the one where the cherry bomb went off, to run a yearbook photo session.) He shouldn’t be so sure either. What ensues is a non-romance romance — the age difference may be the least of the couple’s issues — and it’s not going to allow for much forgetting.
Alana becomes party to various Gary schemes, including his promoting an acting career for her. The one that stands out is selling waterbeds. It’s hard to get more ‘70s than that. Gary calls the company Soggy Bottom, and it’s such a success Barbra Streisand orders one. Alas, Streisand is not a character, but her then-boyfriend, Jon Peters, is.
Haim may own the movie, but the actor who plays Peters steals it. That would Bradley Cooper, wearing a white jumpsuit and so over the top he seems to be in heaven. The audience certainly is. Peters takes one look at Gary and sees a conniver soulmate. “We speak the same language,” he declares. This is perhaps not the compliment he intends it to be. The next 10 minutes or so variously involve the bed, a truck, a sports car that runs out of gas (this is the fall of ‘73, with the OPEC embargo), some extremely hairy driving, and a happily destructive act of moral comeuppance. Good thing it’s Alana behind the wheel.
The movie starts to peter out a bit after Peters. How could it not? Actually, Cooper’s cameo represents more of a resurgence. There’s a preceding episode, with Sean Penn playing the actor William Holden — called “Jack” here — that doesn’t really work. Nor does a subsequent one, with Alana volunteering in a mayoral campaign. The candidate is played by Benny Safdie, of the filmmaking Safdie brothers.
“Licorice Pizza” loses something whenever it’s just Alana or Gary instead of the two of them together. It’s a movie that offers many pleasures without ever becoming something larger. There’s a randomness to it. That random quality makes the movie truer to life — randomness is also very ‘70s — but not necessarily truer to art. The things in “Licorice Pizza” that are so good, like the performances from Haim and Hoffman and Cooper and the period fidelity, make you wish that the entire movie was just as good. That’s wishing for too much, of course, but Gary would understand.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 133 minutes. R (language, sexual material, drug use — though, just between you and me? it’s really more of a PG-13)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.