Licorice Pizza – Review

Worth seeing: for the youthful exuberance of the central character as he seeks the American dream in 1970s California.
Director:Paul Thomas Anderson
Featuring:Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Benny Safdie, Bradley Cooper, Danielle Haim, Donna Haim, Este Haim, Isabelle Kusman, John C Reilly, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Maya Rudolph, Milo Herschlag, Moti Haim, Nate Mann, Ryan Heffington, Sean Penn, Skyler Gisondo, Tom Waits
Length:134 minutes
Released:1st January 2022


It’s the early 1970s in the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles, and 15 year old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is queuing up for his school year-book photo. He takes an immediate shine to a young woman, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), who’s working for the photographer.

Gary’s years as a child actor are coming to an end, as spotty 15 year olds just aren’t that cute anymore. Alana isn’t satisfied with her lot, but she’s not really sure what she does want – a bit of attention never goes amiss, but from a 15 year old?

Against her better judgement, she agrees to meet him for dinner and the pair form an unconventional friendship. It’s the kind of friendship where he flirts and she reminds him that she’s ten years older than him. The kind of friendship where she accompanies him on his final promotional tour as an actor as his chaperone as his mother’s out of town. The kind of friendship where, when he decides to try to replace his acting income by selling waterbeds, she agrees to work for him. The kind of friendship where if one of them has a crush on someone else, the other tries to make them jealous.

But when the friendship is finally pushed to its limits, Alana realises it’s time to grow up and she steps out on her own, trying to carve a real career for herself – in politics – driven as much by a crush on the mayoral candidate (Benny Safdie) as by her vision for a better city.

As much as it is now, back in the 1970s, Los Angeles was full of people trying to make a name for themselves, any way that they could; it’s similarly true that it’s always been much easier to make something of yourself with someone else by your side.


Having explored the dark underbelly of life – in one way or another – in a career that has seen him work with some of the finest actors in Hollywood, Paul Thomas Anderson here delivers an uncharacteristically light-hearted film, led by two acting newcomers – with a host of big names, lurking in the background.

His drama inspired by the life of the Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard, The Master, a central character was played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Anderson is now working with Hoffman’s son, Cooper, in his first film role. Alongside him is Alana Haim – a third of the eponymous girl group, Haim. Her two sisters play her sisters in this film and their parents play their parents. To complete the family tree, Anderson has directed a number of Haim’s pop videos.

Much of Licorice Pizza plays like a pop video, with 1970s hits pounding on the soundtrack as the characters strut their stuff.

Anderson’s breezy take on the early 70s is a nostalgic delight – authentically portraying this culturally rich period of American history. The film is constantly fun – often pleasantly surprising – but it has some troubling moments; when viewed from Gary’s perspective – a teenager with a crush on an older woman – the central premise seems exciting – but from Alana’s perspective – a woman in her mid-twenties encouraging the advances of someone ten years her junior – it feels quite creepy; Anderson plays up the exciting and dismisses the creepy altogether.

The director is very much on Cooper’s side – embodying the exuberance of a youngster’s efforts to achieve the American dream. But the leading lady is portrayed very much as a woman who’ll blow with the wind, in her efforts to find comfort in the arms of a man. It’s almost as uncomfortable watching such a young-looking woman chasing older men as it is to see her entertaining the prospect of something happening with a younger one. But we’re not seeing these events through her eyes.

The film is essentially structured as a string of vignettes, over an ill-defined period of time. We see Alana encourage Gary’s acting; we see their efforts to sell waterbeds – including a somewhat surreal encounter with Bradley Cooper’s Jon Peters – at the time, the partner of Barbra Streisand; we see her eyeing up older men, including Sean Penn’s ageing actor and Benny Safdie’s aspiring politician; we see him switch his attention from waterbeds to pinball machines as she dabbles in politics. All the while, they’re friendship is evolving – they grow closer, they drift apart.

But entertaining as it is, the closer the film gets to its denouement, it becomes clear where it’s going and it becomes clear that that’s not necessarily the place that such a story should end – not in the 1970s and not now. It’s a peculiar blend of inevitable and unacceptable.

It’s a tasty slice of nostalgia, with plenty of extra toppings – but they don’t all work with each other. It’s a lot of fun – until it leaves a slightly bitter taste in your mouth. It’s sweet, with a sour aftertaste.

Licorice Pizza is a hugely enjoyable ride to a slightly disappointing destination.