Movie Reviews

Once Upon A Time… In The 70s | “Licorice Pizza” (2021) Movie Review

“Licorice Pizza” is a film that’s hard to describe outside of the very general description of it being a comedic coming-of-age Paul Thomas Anderson drama that takes place in the 70s that looks at the time period through rose-colored glasses, in much the same way “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” did for the 60s. 

The film follows 15-year-old child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and 25-year-old photography assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim), who acts and is treated like a teenager. He asks her out, and she rejects his advances, but agrees to go to dinner with him, which launches their friendship which evolves over the course of the film. 

Gary is very charismatic and mature for his age, as he is skillfully able to navigate the business side of being a child actor, and is excellent at maintaining social relationships with the various characters and business owners of the film’s San Fernando Valley setting, and it is through that know-how that he’s able to launch several business ventures over the course of the film, the largest being his waterbed and pinball businesses. It’s alluded that Gary’s parents have money and are always working, so he’s left to his own devices for most of the film, with plenty of capital at his disposal. 

Alana starts the film largely following Gary’s lead, as his ventures create opportunity for her, which she takes up in part to rebel against her strict father (played by Haim’s own father, Moti). She’s also emotionally immature for her age and lives at home, which is probably why she gravitates towards Gary despite their notable age gap. Like a teenager, Alana is only partially in control of her life, and is unable to fully stand on her own as an independent adult until arguably the film’s end. 

The film is a series of lighthearted 70s-themed misadventures, ranging from the aforementioned ventures in the waterbed and pinball businesses, to a tense and unpredictable encounter with Barbara Streisand’s boyfriend, Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), to an absolutely insane evening with actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn) and director Rex Blau (Tom Waits) that involves a motorcycle and a grease fire pit. 

In their short tangent, Penn and Waits steal the show, as they have this absolutely great chaotic energy together that is just entrancing. They’re best friends who aren’t afraid of doing anything crazy, as long as it’s fun. I would really love to see them star in a feature together. 

One of the later but less noteworthy plot points in the film involves Alana and Gary getting involved with the mayoral campaign of city councilor Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), in which his sexuality is a main subject (he’s gay). It’s also the first time Alana diverges from Gary in a major way, as while he films campaign commercials for Wachs, he leaves it to set up a pinball palace when he overhears that they’re about to be legal in town for the first time in decades. Alana stays though, because she wants something to believe in.

Wachs and his staff are mostly flat characters, though some of the campaign scenes will draw instant comparisons to “Taxi Driver”. It mostly serves as a vehicle to progress both Alana and Gary’s characters, and it works. 

“Licorice Pizza” isn’t a perfect film, and there are several dubious points that will prevent some viewers from getting into this — such as Alana and Gary’s age inappropriate quasi-romantic relationship and some culturally-incentive scenes — but there’s a lot that works on a filmmaking and character level. It really feels like a random collection of different trends, plot points and figures from the time period, grounded by Hoffman and Haim’s performances, that shouldn’t work, but does anyways. 

“Licorice Pizza” gets an 8/10

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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