‘Licorice Pizza’ Skips Substance for Sunny ’70s Nostalgia

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Woman holds mirror while young man brushes his hair in front of it.
Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Licorice Pizza.' (Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.)

It’s hard to imagine a movie more out of time—more detached from the present moment—than Licorice Pizza. To be sure, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t anticipate a global pandemic when he concocted this ’70s teenage nostalgia trip through the San Fernando Valley. But here we are, and even moviegoers desperately craving escapist entertainment at the height (or depth) of Omicron Season will be left unfulfilled by a film that offers cotton candy for the senses, and nothing more.

The pastel-hued, period-soundtracked Licorice Pizza (opening everywhere on Dec. 25) consists of a lengthy string of episodes involving a fast-talking child actor and inveterate hustler and the intelligent but aimless photographer’s assistant he espies and hits on at his high school photo day. Alana is a few years older than Gary, an impediment that would have fueled the plot of a romantic comedy of yore. But it makes little sense here, given that he serves as the movie’s motor while her presumed maturity and experience is rarely in evidence.

Young man in white suit outside a busy arcade.
Cooper Hoffman plays Gary in 'Licorice Pizza.' (Melinda Sue Gordon; Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.)

Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who starred in Anderson’s The Master) and singer-songwriter Alana Haim achieve a naturalism in their acting debuts that dovetails with the director’s propensity for lengthy tracking shots and extended takes. Casting non-professionals serves another function, which is to contrast the characters’ innocence with the more calculated Hollywood types they eventually cross paths with.

The casting also suggests, improbably, as Quentin Tarantino did in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, that any random Southern Californian might rub shoulders with a star. If Licorice Pizza has anything to say about American society or the American character, it’s that our real manifest destiny is the irrepressible urge to be rich and famous.

In Licorice Pizza, a famous older actor (Sean Penn playing an enjoyable riff on William Holden, in a lengthy, tongue-in-cheek sequence that features Tom Waits as a grizzled studio director) puts the moves on a receptive Alana in an industry watering hole. This scene seems to be the real reason that Alana needs to be of age, in order to (slightly) mitigate the creepiness of the encounter.

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Alana truly comes into her own, though, behind the wheel of a large truck in the Hollywood hills in the midst of the oil embargo. She’s paired with Gary on his latest venture, a waterbed business, and on this day they and a crew of fellow youngsters are delivering and installing the latest model to hairdresser-cum-producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper, goosing the movie with a coked-up impression of Barbra Streisand’s then-boyfriend).

Older man in gray suit drives a motorcycle with young woman behind him.
Sean Penn, who plays William Holden, with Alana Haim in 'Licorice Pizza.' (Melinda Sue Gordon; Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.)

Gary is at least partly inspired by the adventures of Gary Goetzman, a child actor (and later a producer) whose roles included the 1968 Lucille Ball-Henry Fonda comedy Yours, Mine and Ours. (Holden, Ball and her movie are given fictional names in Licorice Pizza, which is curious because Peters is not. This isn’t the kind of thing you’re supposed to be wondering about while a movie is playing.) Gary’s raw ambition, if not his ruthlessness, is a match for Daniel Plainview, the wildcatter played by Daniel Day-Lewis in Anderson’s semi-coherent There Will Be Blood.

There’s no question that Licorice Pizza is an alive and entertaining movie from moment to moment—Anderson and Michael Bauman’s sun-sweet images of ’70s cars set to the strains of Gordon Lightfoot, Blood Sweat & Tears, The James Gang, et al. are hypnotic—and it pulls the viewer forward despite the lack of either a story or captivating lead characters. But it exists in a world that’s never heard of Earth Day, Vietnam, Watergate or women’s liberation, and it has nothing to say about today’s world.

Young man and woman driving a Ford truck, looking stressed.
Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in 'Licorice Pizza.' (Melinda Sue Gordon; Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.)

Frankly, this is the dilemma I confront with many of Anderson’s films, especially Phantom Thread and Inherent Vice. He is a skillful and talented director, and he knows how to infuse a movie with verve and energy. But filmmaking for filmmaking’s sake, even when the result is entertaining, is a form of self-indulgence. Applauding auteurs whose themes are obscure and muddled, and whose characters remain enigmas, isn’t helpful.

When Anderson wrote Jon Peters into this movie, he had to realize that some viewers would be put in mind of Shampoo, Hal Ashby’s stinging 1975 satire of Hollywood and American amorality starring Warren Beatty as an L.A. hairdresser (inspired by Peters) who makes “house calls” to a dizzying array of women. The erstwhile hero is pleasure-seeking and cheerfully oblivious until he gets the bill for his selfishness.

In Licorice Pizza, Anderson has crafted a picaresque tale that alludes to, but doesn’t challenge or critique, the ethics of opportunism or the ways in which young people’s dreams are exploited by the powerful. Nobody and nothing is allowed to scratch a Gremlin, kill a buzz or derail an ambition. In short, to curdle the nostalgia.

‘Licorice Pizza’ is in theaters everywhere on Dec. 25, 2021.