The coming-of-age film is certainly nothing new. It’s a well-worn bit of storytelling that can very easily fall into the trappings of cliché, but depending on your sensibilities, even the most tired moments can work because they ring true for the audience either hitting that point in their lives or reminiscing about bygone eras. Even films as intentionally juvenile as American Pie are able to find those rare instances of resonant epiphany among the horny chaos to become classics.
There’s really no right or wrong way to do them. Two films can follow the exact same path, lay out similar jokes, use the same catalog soundtrack, and cast largely the same actors, and yet have completely different results when it comes to audience engagement. There’s always some nebulous X-factor that ultimately determines whether the movie will work or not. It’s completely hit and miss, and wherever you find great success, you also find great failure. For every Lady Bird there’s a Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. For every Way Way Back there’s a Porky’s. For every Crossroads (1986) there’s a Crossroads (2002).
As such, I must admit there was a slight degree of trepidation when Licorice Pizza (named after an old record store) was announced. Rarely is there a middle ground with these types of films, and the cynic in me wondered if Paul Thomas Anderson might finally meet his thematic match and put out the first bad film of his illustrious career. If nothing else the laws of averages might finally present themselves to one of the greatest minds in modern cinema, resulting in his first true mulligan.
But I needn’t have worried at all. Not only is Licorice Pizza a fun exercise in meta casting, giving us multiple dimensions of loving imitations, nepotism, and delightful lunacy, but it’s also an absolute winner when it comes to this subgenre of comedy. It’s sweet, uproariously funny, expertly written, deeply understanding, and quite possibly the best film of the year.
I mention nepotism because the cast is filled with second and third level associations to Anderson and one another, but this is the exception that proves the rule, creating a perfect storm of relatability for those of us watching. We’re led by two ostensible newcomers, as this film represents their first movie roles, but neither are strangers to performing and the fast-paced world of entertainment. Alana Haim, of the titular band Haim, plays Alana Kane, who begins the film as a photographer’s assistant before her friendship with her main counterpart ushers her into the entertainment industry. That foil is Gary Valentine (based on producer and former child actor Gary Goetzman), played by Cooper Hoffman, son of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. It goes on from there, as Anderson cast his wife Maya Rudolph in a small role, and their kids have bit parts as well. Similarly, Haim’s presence represents a true family affair, as her sisters/bandmates Danielle and Este co-star as her sisters in the movie, as do her real-life parents Moti and Donna.
Normally these casting decisions would be looked upon with massive skepticism, if not outright derision, but in the world of this film, it makes a weirdly logical bit of sense. Gary, coming off his latest role in Under One Roof (itself a take on Yours, Mine, and Ours, which Goetzman appeared in), has aged out of child roles. He’s only 15, yet he stands head and shoulders above everyone at his auditions. This immediately puts him into an awkward transitional phase where he’s trying to figure out what the next stage of his life is going to be. Will he continue acting? Will he go into business? Can he provide for himself? Can he live up to the lofty expectations he’s had for himself since before he could walk? This is all before we even get to his actual social and sexual development.
Gary is a natural hustler, using his fast talk and charming wit to get his way more often than not. He’s extremely extroverted and knows how to schmooze, which means he’s just as comfortable trying to make a business deal despite his age as he is using gas cans to make sophomoric masturbation jokes. At the same time, whenever something doesn’t go his way, he takes it as not just a personal slight, but a full-on betrayal, and never reacts well. In these moments his motivations are so base he might as well just be a walking penis.
But just like Belfast, this works because it all makes sense when taken in the context of the character’s point of reference and worldview. That’s the X-Factor that really makes this film soar. Every teenage boy knows the exact hormone-driven uncertainty and anxiety that Gary is going through, and it’s only magnified by his status as a minor celebrity, as he’s spent basically every day of his life to this point having things arranged for him. Whether it’s work or his personal life, everything has had an order to it, and now that order is shattered, leaving him grasping at straws to figure things out on his own for really the first time.
This also holds true for Alana, in both the film’s sense and the meta. By having her entire family present, she’s stuck in a situation that is ultimately safe but potentially maddening. As the youngest child she’s seen as the baby of the family, even though she’s 25 and should be in the process of getting her shit together. This puts her in her own frustrating dilemma where she’s too mature for much of Gary’s adolescent antics, but unable to extricate herself from the more commanding and overprotective influence of her family.
On top of that, as an attractive girl in 1970s Los Angeles, basically everyone looks at her first for her sex appeal and a distant second for her skills. Even her initial meeting with Gary – a glorious set of long takes where he takes her up on her offer of a mirror check before school picture day that transitions into him asking her out – is based in that objectification. It’s only when she begins working for the first mayoral campaign for City Councilman Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) that she gets any recognition outside of her physical appearance (for reasons that become quickly apparent if you don’t know Wachs’ history), but by then she’s so used to it that she doesn’t really know how to react. I imagine it’s a conundrum that many women in the audience felt deeply.
All of this is to say that Hoffman and Haim play off each other absolutely brilliantly because Gary and Alana are both in the right context to be just what the other needs without realizing it. And in that respect, they both give utterly tremendous performances, which is almost unheard of for two debutantes in the same film! Their dynamic is equal parts affection and mockery, keeping each other honest while at the same time noting and admiring the quirks that make one another unique, each a true complement to the other. There’s a grander sympathy that Anderson’s direction and script lend to these two that can only come from a true understanding of the crippling uncertainties of young adulthood. You root for these two to become a couple because they’re those two odd pieces of a puzzle that can only fit together. In a weird moment, I was reminded of one of the more salient lines from, of all things, the Harley Quinn cartoon. When Harley confesses her love for Poison Ivy, she leads with, “You call me out on all my bullshit, but you don’t judge me for it.”
That is the core of Gary and Alana’s relationship, and the core of any stable adult romance. It’s one thing to have googly-eyed infatuation or unbridled sexual chemistry, but at the end of the day what really matters is having a partner who will love you enough to be honest and tell you when you’re fucking up, recognizing that everyone has flaws, embracing them, and helping you work through them. And for two people who have never performed in this particular capacity to pull it off so convincingly is something truly special. In that sense, despite all their doubts, they both choose the path forward, to grow up. Honestly, the only part that you can argue doesn’t quite work is that given their relative heights and Haim’s very youthful appearance, it didn’t exactly scan that there was a 10-year age difference between the two characters to provide the initial wall of separation.
But once you set that aside, these two are a dynamic pair, guiding us through an absurdly overexaggerated – in the most delightful way possible – version of 70s L.A. you could ask for, with John Michael Higgins playing an over-the-top culturally insensitive version of Jerry Frick (I’m currently working on the next season of America Says, and I can’t WAIT to pick his brain about this when we get to set in a couple months), Christine Ebersole playing a legally-safe imitation of Lucille Ball, Sean Penn doing the same with a caricature of William Holden, Bradley Cooper saying “fuck it” and making producer Jon Peters into a complete psychopath, and Tom Waits playing a drunk director at an A-lister hangout restaurant and getting Alana nearly killed recreating a film stunt on a golf course. It gives you that sensationalist peek at the New Hollywood era (with the film shot on 35mm for accuracy’s sake) you never knew you wanted, but desperately needed. Combine that with one of the best catalog soundtracks in recent memory, and you’ve got an immensely clever time capsule of one of the most tumultuous times for the City of Angels.
And yet, it’s all background noise and window dressing to the true story, which is Gary and Alana finding each other while doing everything in their power – intentionally or not – to drive the other one away. Even in the few moments where the film approaches trope territory, like its intentional overuse of the characters running in various directions, there’s a tremendous payoff just in case you thought Anderson was going to let something slide for even an instant. It’s a great moment in the movie itself, and a reminder to those who, like me, were fearful of him finally making a misstep. He’s Paul Thomas fucking Anderson. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and it’s goddam glorious.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What do you think is the best debut performance in a movie? Is there life on Mars? Let me know!