I never know what to expect from Paul Thomas Anderson, but I've never been disappointed. He is one of those truly remarkable filmmakers whose unique sensibilities make him a perfect fit for any idea in any genre. The press chuckled when he spoke of plans to make an Adam Sandler film. However, Anderson honed in on a common thread of rage in Sandler's comedic performances to make him an indelible lead in their offbeat romantic comedy. That's only one example in an oeuvre made up of porn stars, oil prospectors, dressmakers and private investigators. And for every idea that reads as baffling on paper, Anderson continues to flourish in each genre he tackles. His latest, 'Licorice Pizza', puts another feather in his cap as he delivers a dreamy coming-of-age odyssey with the debut performances of an indie band musician and the descendant of Hollywood royalty.
Set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973, the film follows the lives of Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim of the band Haim). He's a 15-year-old child actor with a penchant for business. She's a 25-year-old not sure what to do with her life - that is until she joins Gary on his side hustles. Through their various escapades, they come into contact with a variety of colourful characters. These include an exuberant movie star (Sean Penn, 'Mystic River'), an aspiring mayor (Benny Safdie, 'Good Time'), and Barbara Streisand's psychotic boyfriend (Bradley Cooper, 'A Star Is Born'). Despite often being at odds with each other, Gary and Alana's friendship feels destined to turn romantic.
Similar to Quentin Tarantino's 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood', 'Licorice Pizza' is an endearing hangout film lovingly set in a bygone era, not heavy on plotting but instead presenting an array of episodic adventures led by a group of Californian weirdos. This isn't entirely new territory for Anderson; he's made films involving a plethora of stories before, but where 'Licorice Pizza' differs is in its intentions. It's not designed to be a sweeping tragedy like 'Magnolia' or to solve a mystery like 'Inherent Vice'; it just wants to savour the little moments and have some fun with its eclectic ensemble. Each tangent is often very funny, sometimes even moving, but above all, laid back. Each little sector of storytelling is told as smooth as can be, and the shaggy world Anderson constructs is one you never wish to leave.
But while its narrative is purposefully loose, its vignettes are all in service of the film's central through-line of growing up. Throughout the proceedings, Gary and Alana are in positions to grow up, but their responses differ dramatically. Gary goes out of his way to shed his youth and prove himself a man. Alana, on the other hand, needs to come to grips with the fact that she can't refuse the call to adulthood much longer. It's a wise decision for Anderson to centre his wandering tales through these viewpoints because most will relate to the plight of both characters. Many of us could recall a time we've both beckoned for seniority as well as times we wished for anything but. It makes for two authentic leads which require little effort to connect to.
A lot of this is also testament to the wonderful performances from Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim. 'Licorice Pizza' marks the pair's cinematic debuts, yet the two of them could not appear more natural on screen. Hoffman exudes a charisma that correlates well with his character's innate sense of arrogance. It would be very easy for his character to be offputting, but Hoffman is able to find the right balance between cheeky and charming. As for Haim, all the praise coming her way is more than justified. It's remarkable how much presence she brings and how simple she makes it look. For two unknowns, their work is incredibly impressive. They have terrific chemistry with each other, and it's a sheer joy just to be in their company.
Each tangent is often very funny, sometimes even moving, but above all, laid back. Each little sector of storytelling is told as smooth as can be, and the shaggy world Anderson constructs is one you never wish to leave.
The performances across the board are fantastic. Sean Penn is the best he's been in aeons as a riff on a golden age movie star. Benny Safdie's delicate turn lends a lot of empathy to the film. But perhaps the biggest scene-stealer is Bradley Cooper as the infamous movie producer, Jon Peters. Anderson allows Cooper to let loose, and he goes for broke in a truly wild turn. Cooper has always had an intensity about him - there's something in his eyes - and Anderson makes strong use of that. The majority of the supporting performers aren't present for a long, but they certainly leave their stamp on things.
For all its marvellous qualities, a lot of the talk surrounding the film revolves around the age gap between Alana and Gary. As previously mentioned, Alana is 25 and Gary is 15. I'm not going to discuss the extent of the discourse, because then this goes beyond being just a film review. However, did it bother me? Somewhat. Things don't get graphic; you wouldn't even consider it a plot point. That said, when it is brought up, it's hard not to feel a little squeamish. Of course, it's caused a lot of hoopla from both sides of the argument, and I can't say I align myself with either camp in their extremity, but it is an odd choice. For a film this terrific, it's frustrating that this facet is generating this much attention.
But be that as it may, 'Licorice Pizza' is still a surefire delight; a free-flowing journey of first love with all the pitfalls and ramblings that often come with it. Paul Thomas Anderson taps into the storytelling techniques he's implemented on previous occasions to tell an effervescent coming-of-age journey. Through some masterful casting involving both fresh-faced debutants and some Hollywood heavyweights, he once again transports us to a world of lively characters and their madcap schemes. It's one of my favourite films of the year. It also made me feel less conscious about preferring pineapple on my pizza.