‘Licorice Pizza’ (2021) Review

Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies have a way of creeping into your soul and living with you. He understands what it takes to earn your emotional investment and doesn’t let go once he has you. His latest flick, Licorice Pizza, is no exception to that rule.

One of the most (understandably) acclaimed directors of his time appears to be returning to his roots in his latest film. It’s an absolute pleasure watching PTA work in a small-scale tale set in the San Fernando valley – the locale of choice for two of his early hits, Boogie Nights and Magnolia. While Licorice Pizza may feel like a departure from previous PTA flicks like There Will Be Blood, The Master, or Phantom Thread, all the core elements of his films are on full display here.

PTA’s thematic through line of the confused and seemingly abandoned weirdos of the world crashing together, fighting the friction, and eventually finding the magic in their connection is abundantly apparent in Licorice Pizza. Perhaps even more so than in some of previous works. The film follows high schooler/child actor Gary Valentine and his romantic pursuit of the slightly older, and slightly less mature, Alana Kane.

The film hits the ground running, telling us everything we need to know about who these characters are and the journey we are about to take with them. After the chance meeting at Gary’s school picture day, where Alana is working for the photography studio, the embark on what can only be described as a game of romantic chicken.

Alana’s combative anger at the world (and at times herself) is constantly clashing with Gary’s unabashed bravado (likely a cover for an undiscovered insecurity) from scene to scene. Neither of the two are ever able to fully back out of the game, and each moment slowly pushes us towards their story’s inevitable end.

When it comes to the film’s performances, Alana Haim is the obvious place to start. Her first turn as Alana Kane will likely be widely referred to as a revelation. I’m not one to disagree this assessment. Her screen presence is undeniable; oozing a coolness and confidence not entirely shared by her character.

Starring opposite her, in an equally impressive breakout performance is Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The two bop around town, encountering a rotating door of a brilliantly wonderful cast of characters; each more entertaining than the last. Among the film’s many scene stealers are Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, and Benny Safdie. Be sure to stay on the lookout for a killer John C. Reilly cameo. You might miss it if you blink.

At times, Licorice Pizza feels as if PTA wants to remind us that he can be a wildly funny filmmaker. The eccentricities of the characters are on full display here and the laugh out loud moments are gracefully weaved into the film with great effect. Licorice Pizza dares you to define; to put it in a box or to assign it a genre. The film is equal parts rom-com, coming-of-age, hangout flick, and melodrama. All blended together and served with that necessary spice that only someone of PTA’s caliber can deliver.

The easy comparison to make here is to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – two films about a Los Angeles from yesterday about an actor nearing the end of his prime gallivanting about town in search of next purpose in life. Where OUATIH feels dull and overly self-indulgent in its referential firestorm, Licorice Pizza is a wonderfully woven tapestry of its elements with an understood and fully realized core.

Licorice Pizza flows like a great love song. One that that you won’t be able to stop yourself from humming, even long after you’ve listened to it. The way that PTA is able to balance the beautifully simplistic storytelling and the masterful technique of film’s craft and composition is utterly awe inspiring.

Licorice Pizza is ultimately a film made up of wonderful little moments. Moments that get under your skin in ways that aren’t always apparent as you’re watching them but build up to a sense of fulfillment in the film’s cathartic finale. The pure joy felt walking out of the theater was one unmatched by many films I’ve seen in recent years. To put it bluntly: Licorice Pizza is a special movie.

Author: Raf Stitt

Brooklyn based. Full time movie fan, part time podcaster, occasional writer. Follow on Twitter: @rafstitt