Reviews of Licorice Pizza have been so enthusiastic that United Artists has added four preview screenings, and this Saturday’s shows in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Austin have already sold out. With its summer-strutting vibes, Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature has clearly brought the joy to this crowded season for most critics, though some seem to be having second thoughts about enjoying themselves so thoroughly during those two hours and thirteen minutes. “For better or worse, and especially on the heels of the refined, meticulous Phantom Thread, this looks like the shaggiest and most rambling movie of Anderson’s esteemed, ever-evolving career,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club.
Boy meets girl on yearbook picture day at a high school in the suburban sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. He’s a student, and she’s a twenty-five-year-old photographer’s assistant. It’s 1973, three years after Joaquin Phoenix’s Larry “Doc” Sportello fell down the rabbit hole into the Los Angeles underworld in Inherent Vice (2014) and four years before Mark Wahlberg’s Eddie Adams becomes Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights (1997). Writing for Film Comment,Nathan Lee describes Gary Valentine as “a relentlessly congenial, pimple-faced fifteen-year-old whose guileless self-confidence and improbable entrepreneurialism suggest the SoCal nephew of Rushmore’s Max Fisher.”
Gary is played by Cooper Hoffman, the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who left his indelible mark on five of Anderson’s features. “It only takes a few minutes of watching him onscreen to see exactly why he’s perfect for the role; pedigree doesn’t even play into it,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear. “One scene, in which Gary holds up a finger to quiet someone as he lights a cigarette, channels his late dad. Other than that, the kid is completely his own man.”
Just about everyone agrees that a star is born in Alana Haim, the youngest sister in Haim, the band for whom Anderson has been shooting videos over the past few years. The two older sisters, Este and Danielle, and their parents—Donna Haim was Anderson’s elementary school art teacher in Studio City—appear in Licorice Pizza as Alana Kane’s family. “Haim grips the screen with a magnetism approaching the nouvelle vague advent of Anna Karina,” writes Nathan Lee. “She radiates a steely self-presence that crackles with tough-minded, sharp-tongued confidence even as it coils back on itself with the doubts, uncertainties, and aimless vagaries of a quarter-life crisis. Her performance is both savvy and unaffected, technically precise and radically instinctual. She abounds, for lack of a better phrase, in that ineffable form of fascination called ‘screen presence.’”
Vulture’s Alison Willmore finds Licorice Pizza to be “as exasperating as it is delightful.” It “could be described as an exploration of the unstable ground where Alana’s arrested development and Gary’s precociousness meet.” Fully aware that romance is out of the question, they set off together on a series of adventures drawn from the life of Gary Goetzman, a former child star who has since become a successful Hollywood producer and a good friend of Paul Thomas Anderson.
Alana and Gary fly to New York and back, take part in the drunken shoot of a motorcycle stunt with Jack Holden (Sean Penn, clearly playing William Holden), and deliver a waterbed to Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper, stealing the movie for a few minutes as the hairdresser-turned-producer dating Barbra Streisand). “All of these episodes are messy, as though some choice recollections were gathered at a bar one night and then dramatized,” writes Willmore.
Though Slate’s Dana Stevens is “hard pressed to think of a recent movie whose world I would have liked to stay in longer,” she does point out that there’s a “running gag about a white restaurant owner with a series of interchangeable Japanese wives” that “seems meant as a joke about the character’s racism, but the joke lands gracelessly.” The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis observes that Anderson “deploys these stereotypes without editorializing, which is a commentary on their use, and just enough timing and attention to make it clear that he’s enjoying tweaking contemporary sensibilities.”
Licorice Pizza “feels pleased with how casual and effortless it is, which is the exact opposite of being casual and effortless,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “And while the story’s lead woman character is the best thing about it, somehow Anderson’s focus still tilts more toward the guy.” Manohla Dargis suggests that the movie “doesn’t always know what to do with Alana other than dog after her, and it’s a particular bummer that while Anderson makes her an object of love and lust, he shortchanges her sexual desire.”
“Movement is the organizing principle of Licorice Pizza,” writes Adam Nayman at the Ringer. “Characters are always in a hurry to get somewhere, even when they’re traveling backward.” The film “almost feels like a highlight reel of PTA’s greatest tropes and moments—a victory lap around home turf.” And “like all premium teen movies—from American Graffiti to Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Dazed and Confused—a lot of what’s funny in Licorice Pizza comes from how seriously its characters take themselves and their feelings, while whatever’s profound accumulates in throwaway moments.”
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