From “Boogie Nights” to “Magnolia,” through “There Will Be Blood” and “Phantom Thread,” the writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has created some of the most immersive and masterful works of the last quarter-century, solidifying his standing as one of the great filmmakers of his generation. He adds another instant classic to his library with the 1970s period-piece comedy/drama “Licorice Pizza,” which never strikes a false note and always keeps us entertained and is the kind of film we can’t wait to see again because we know we’re going to enjoy it even more the second time around.
Can you tell I loved this movie?
“Licorice Pizza” has a kind of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” vibe in that it’s a revisionist slice of showbiz history mixing some real-life figures and purely fictional characters. But the more obvious influences are works from auteurs Hal Ashby (“Shampoo”) and Robert Altman (“Short Cuts,” “The Player”), as Anderson once again demonstrates his genius for pitch-perfect ensemble casting and an uncanny ability to weave multiple ongoing storylines into a cohesive, exhilarating, astonishingly authentic big-picture story. Whether Anderson is working with accomplished veterans or bright and shiny newcomers, he has a way of coaxing the very best out of them.
Set in the sun-drenched, Nixon-era San Fernando Valley, replete with bell bottoms and sideburns and mini-skirts and long hair and waterbeds and pinball machines, with needle drops such as “Peace Frog” by the Doors, “If You Could Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot, “Let Me Roll It” by Paul McCartney and Wings and “Lisa, Listen to Me” by Blood, Sweat & Tears greatly helping to set the tone, “Licorice Pizza” opens on Yearbook Photo Day at a local high school. We meet 15-year-old, strawberry-coiffed, pimply faced charmer Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of frequent Anderson collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he tries to hustle a date with the photographer’s assistant, the 25-year-old Alana Kane (musician Alana Haim), and yes, this would probably never be a plot point in a major motion picture if the genders were reversed, but in Anderson’s hands the potential romance never feels creepy or exploitative.
Alana brushes aside Gary’s advances, reminding him he’s just a kid, but she’s intrigued by this hyperactive teenager and his talk of his career as an actor with a handful of movies and TV shows and commercials on his resume, not to mention his grand plans for all manner of moneymaking endeavors. In one of the many expertly rendered set-pieces in “Licorice Pizza,” Alana accompanies Gary as his chaperone for a trip to New York for a live cast reunion of the screwball comedy “Under One Roof,” a parallel-universe version of the 1968 Lucille Ball comedy “Yours, Mine and Ours.” (This film is loosely based on the experiences and stories of Anderson’s longtime friend, the actor and producer Gary Goetzman.) It’s a wonderfully oddball slice of showbiz life circa the early 1970s.
Over an unspecified period of time, Gary and Alana drift in and out of each other’s lives, with Gary still hoping for romance and Alana thinking of Gary as her platonic best friend — until she eventually considers an actual romance with this crazy, one-of-a-kind character. Writer-director Anderson serves up a myriad of fantastically entertaining subplots, ranging from a dinner at Alana’s home (with Haim’s real-life siblings and parents as her family) to the nascent political campaign of real-life Los Angeles politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) to Bradley Cooper’s nomination-worthy extended cameo as the hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters, portrayed here as a manic, narcissistic, preening fool, which may or may not be spot-on. The abundance of dramatic riches continues when Sean Penn appears as a spiritual cousin to the Leonardo DiCaprio character in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” with a side dish of William Holden. The macho star performs a death-defying motorcycle stunt on the Van Nuys Golf Course for a crowd that has followed him out of a restaurant.
(Another subplot has generated a ton of controversy even before the wide release of “Licorice Pizza,” as it involves a racist restaurateur played by John Michael Higgins who has a series of Japanese wives and speaks in an exaggerated, offensive Asian accent. At the press screening for “Licorice Pizza,” I laughed AT — not with — this character, because he was such a horrific caricature. I can certainly understand and respect those who feel the character is exploitative and plays into racial stereotypes, but I felt it was a legitimate, through-the-1970s-lens portrayal of a clueless idiot.)
With first-rate production values and a gloriously memory-drenched 35mm cinematography, “Licorice Pizza” is a visual feast brimming with razor-sharp dialogue, hilarious comedic vignettes, brilliant performances from Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim as well as the veteran, star-studded supporting cast, and some genuine heart. This is one of the very best movies of 2021.