Licorice Pizza is, as the title implies, is about unconventional mixtures. Like growing up during the turbulent 1970s, when post-war America was also losing its innocence. Like existing on the cusp of the entertainment industry, where the dream factory starts to more closely resemble its reality as a slaughterhouse. Like the love between Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old child actor starting an early second act as a con artist and the woman he envisions as his future wife, Alana (Alana Haim), a 25-year-old who still lives at home and can’t seem to figure out how to navigate the adult world. The two meet when Alana is helping students line up for yearly photos at Gary’s high school. He’s confident, assured and interested in her in a way other men aren’t. When he asks her on a date she brushes him off but later shows up.
So starts a summer of will-they, won’t-they adventures during which Alana becomes Gary’s right-hand woman in a variety of silly schemes as the two scrape against adulthood in the bizarre 1970s Los Angeles landscape. The latest film from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is episodic and tends to leapfrog over important decisions the characters make. It is, frankly, disorienting at times — epic in length but shaggy in the telling. It’s bursting, it’s desperate and, in its better moments, it matches that tone with the intensity of Gary and Alana’s feelings. It feels like the antithesis to Anderson’s previous film, Phantom Thread, which exhibited an extraordinary amount of formal control to tell a film about the unconventionality at the heart of committed love. This is a messy film about a messy sort of love.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the messiness, although it sometimes fits, adds to the experience of watching the film. Licorice Pizza has a lot of story elements that don’t quite work and segments that feel more diversionary than meaningful. Anderson sets his story in an idyllic view of the early-1970s Los Angeles Valley. There is an intense amount of detail to the setting and a lot, a lot, of nostalgia bait. Frankly, it becomes somewhat tiresome, lending to the impression that the film is less about the two characters and more about the golden memories of a man wistful for what the world 50 years ago feels like in his memories.
Gary and Alana are, frankly, great characters played by actors who deliver better performances than the story in which they’re stuck. It’s noticeable throughout, as their flirtation is continually put to the test by their competing visions for what being an adult looks like. Gary keeps trying to make money and smoothly operates in a world much older than he is. Alana wants a rich boyfriend. He’s drawn to her age and her toughness, and she’s drawn to the way he actually seems to want to be around her. Neither character really grows, a stagnation solidified by closing moments that fit into the romantic-comedy mold but don’t feel honest in a story about a 15-year-old and a 25-year-old.
Anderson is not promoting the act of grooming or anything so salacious. For the most part, Licorice Pizza does a good job capturing a relatively chaste version of Gary and Alana’s tit-for-tat, and it’s a pleasure to watch the two of them spar and flirt and orbit around mutual feelings they can’t quite express. Although their age difference is extreme, this isn’t really about the consummation of their age-inappropriate relationship but rather the way the two characters simply don’t fit into what the world expects of them … until the end and the final line, which shakes away the sense that this is a relationship through which the two of them are going to grow. I’m talking around spoilers but It just crumbles, at least for me.
There’s a bit early in the movie, repeated later, with a casual depiction of anti-Asian racism that has gotten the film a lot of flak; frankly, it feels justified given that the rest of the movie also lacks the thematic depth to make those moments meaningful as anything but an awkward invocation of stereotypes for the sake of comedy. Fundamentally, Licorice Pizza is vibes. It’s about how it feels to be growing up and finding yourself in an inappropriate but irresistible relationship; about finding someone who seems to understand you when the world is too indifferent to even put you in your place; about looking back 50 years and trying to remember what it was like to be young again. Those vibes are bound to work on a lot of audiences, but they’re only possible because Anderson lets himself lose a bit of the control that gives his other films such emotional weight. It’s a lark with good leads and several really funny moments, but in the end, it just feels a bit too unfocused to land where it wishes.