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The first time we see 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, clearly the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman), he’s in the high school men’s room, earnestly combing his hair and assessing his pudgy, acne-pocked face in the mirror. He should be insecure, but he isn’t. Instead, he exudes the confidence of an older man who knows now what he wishes he knew then. The first time we see the 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim, a rock star from the indie-pop-rock band Haim in her first film role), we see her through Gary’s eyes. She’s assisting a photographer with yearbook photos; when Gary spots her striding furiously down the hallway, he stops and tells her that they’re going to mean something to one another. She shouldn’t believe him, but she does.
By definition, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is a romantic comedy, but I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. Yes, it’s often gut-bustingly hilarious and unreservedly romantic, but it moves through its story with no allegiance to convention. There’s an undeniable age gap between the two, but with Gary having spent so much time in the grown-up world and Alana still living at home with her parents and older sisters, they feel closer in age than they are. There are no comic misunderstandings. No big lies uncovered. The profound declarations of love happen at the beginning, not the end. “I’m not gonna forget you,” Gary says on their first date. He courts Alana in a way that only a precocious child actor-turned-entrepreneur can, persuading her to be his chaperone on a promotional tour, and then starting a waterbed business just so he can hire her to work for him. These transitions occur without explanation. It doesn’t really jump through time, but it sometimes feels that way. Love doesn’t have to make sense.
Licorice Pizza makes perfect sense. Experimental in its conception and kaleidoscopic in its vision, it’s somehow never less than giddily entertaining. Buy a ticket, and you’ll get a tour of the (San Fernando) Valley in 1973, a cracked, shiny world in which no one ever stops trying to find love. There’s Sean Penn as a slumping movie star, loosely inspired by William Holden, who tries to impress Alana by drunkenly recreating a stunt from one of his old movies. There’s Bradley Cooper as dirtbag Jon Peters, a real-life Hollywood producer, who in the film uses his association with then-girlfriend Barbara Streisand to justify his manic assholery to Gary, who delivers, installs, and then sabotages a waterbed in his home. None of these characters are with us for more than a scene or two—the tour bus has to keep moving—but they fit so snugly into this half-dreamt, half remembered landscape that we feel we know their lives backwards and forwards.
They seem to live in a world without rules, stuck in the murky middle between adolescence and adulthood, or between the stodgy surfaces of Old Hollywood and the wild liberation of the New. In the end, it’s all the same. Everybody just wants to be loved. Under other circumstances, we might cringe at the ten-year gap between Gary and Alana, but it’s Anderson’s determination to tell an unconventional love story that helps put those questions to rest. If those two ever were to use one of the waterbeds for its primary purpose, well, that would be unsettling. And yes, Gary surely wants to. But as always Anderson has his eyes set on love and connection, not carnality. Gary and Alana seem to be forming a new archetypical romance that expands our puny notions of propriety. Or maybe they’re just Harold and Maude, from Hal Ashby’s beloved 1971 film, born a little closer together.
Yes, Licorice Pizza knows the age difference is weird. Alana even says so at one point. It also knows that another minor character, a restaurateur who Gary is in business with and who uses an offensive Asian accent to mock his Japanese wife, is a racist dick. There is darkness lurking in the corners of the sun-spackled frame that challenges the viewer to reconcile the modern world with this one from a half century ago. Viewers with different life experiences can disagree, but I find something brave in a work that demonstrates problematic behavior and urges us to neither condone nor reject it, instead presenting it as a small part of a larger, beautiful, and complicated story. In our era of snap judgments and moral certainty, Licorice Pizza is at worst a provocation but at best a revolutionary act. At the very least, it’s a dream you’ll remember long after you wake up.
Licorice Pizza opens in area theaters on December 24.