Licorice Pizza

dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2021

Alana (Alana Haim), Gary (Cooper Hoffman), and his younger brother are sat in a convertable car. The two boys look ahead as Alana, who is driving, breaks the fourth wall by staring into the camera.
Image credit: Universal

Few films carry the label ‘laugh-out-loud’ and stand by that pledge. Licorice Pizza is, verifiably, a riot. Steeped in the orange-tinted nostalgia of 1970s Los Angeles, it stars Alana Haim (as Alana Kane) and Cooper Hoffman (Gary Valentine) alongside riff-raff, friends and familiar faces. The narrative is a string of capers that revolve around the central couple. Oh, and there’s a 10 year age gap between Gary and Alana: 15 and 25 respectively.

Alana is a part-time school photographer’s assistant and the only one of three offspring who doesn’t ‘have [her] shit together.’ She is teen angst and adolescent rage manifested in mid-twenties form. Hers is a case of arrested development; Gary, on the other hand, is wise beyond his 15 years. He’s a child actor who puts on the swagger of a 38 year-old showbiz tycoon. (Gary is a bar fly in a martini lounge and confidently takes Alana there on their first ‘date’.) The 10 years between them is crucial to their sparky dynamic but stage of life is not an indicator of maturity. Their similar mindsets make them good companions — despite the age chasm. The proverbial elephant dictates that their connection would not be as wholesome if gender roles were reversed. But, again, that’s an argument based on double standards for why it works.

The world of LP is a veritable pop-up book of 70s caricatures and celebrity cameos. In the Pulp Fiction fashion, the movie is a sequence of bizarre vignettes set in the San Fernando Valley; the joint experiences of which override the couple’s age difference and push them closer to one another. There’s a magnet between them but the invisible line of inappropriacy prevents a boundary from being crossed. Thus the relationship maintains an innocence. Gary and Alana hang out in the brotherly-sisterly way, fight like an old married couple and deny unresolved tensions in the manner of will-they-won’t-they rom-com protagonists. It’s strange on paper but comes together on screen — because of the chemistry between Hoffman and Haim. Even if they can’t be an item in the conventional sense, we hope they continue to orbit each other.

In the place of romantic connection — and steady employment — Gary and Alana become serious business partners. Their entrepreneurship lends to selling water beds and pinball machines over the phone. It’s amusing for a while, until Alana decides to put aside childish pursuits and try on politics for size. The couple take diverging paths as they attempt to abide by the conventionalities of their respective age brackets. Eventually comes the realisation that ‘growing up’ is precisely about shrugging off ill-fitting familial and societal expectations.

Soundtrack-wise, director Paul Thomas Anderson understands the assignment and strives for extra credit. LP’s LP is a (moonage) daydream: Bowie, McCartney, The Doors and Sonny & Cher, along with a Nina Simone opener that deserves special recognition. Every scene has its song matched; a visual and sonic alignment on par with the ‘Across 110th Street’ title sequence from Jackie Brown. Soundtracks are the glue that stick movies to memory. In Licorice Pizza, every needle drop, set piece, facial expression, one-liner and quirk is a mental souvenir. It’s a wonderful mish-mash of ingredients, thrown together with the heart-warming central relationship and summer vibrancy of 70s LA, that make Pizza — not just a slice, but the whole pie.