She first appears to the strains of Nina Simone, and boy, if you’re gonna write that check, you’d better be able to cash it. Her name is Alana (Alana Haim), and the moment Gary (Cooper Hoffman) lays eyes on her, he’s smitten. He approaches her immediately, doing his best to convince her he’s hot shit since he’s an actor and an entrepreneur – “You’re such an actor,” she tells him, twice, neither time as a compliment – but she finds something charming about his bravado, and when he invites her to dinner, she shows up. “Don’t be creepy, please,” she commands him, and for good reason; he veers from his pre-packaged confident patter to a kind of awkward awe. At the end of the night, she gives him her phone number, but instructs him, “Don’t call me all the time, ok? We’re not boyfriend and girlfriend.”
That sticky non-committal – Alana and Gary are not boyfriend and girlfriend, but they will want to be, though rarely both at the same time – forms the backbone of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, and grasping that is the key to understanding that it is not disjointed or scattershot or episodic or any of the other criticisms that people like throw at Anderson, and filmmakers like him who don’t make predetermined movies that march in straight lines.
Which is not to say there isn’t a plot happening here; things happen to Gary and Alana, left and right, plenty of them. But the plot isn’t what moves the movie along. It’s a feeling, a vibe, the way Anderson’s script and direction of his marvelous young actors gets at something indelible about romantic longing, undying crushes, and the jealousy of youth. No matter how hard they try, Alana and Gary absolutely cannot shake each other off, and they also absolutely cannot stop fucking with each other, pushing buttons and feigning disinterest and showboating other romantic possibilities in a doomed attempt to prove they don’t need the other. This is, of course, patently false. These two fully belong together, and Anderson carefully, precisely builds a narrative where you can’t imagine it going any other way. There is an inevitability to this pairing, and much of the movie is about waiting for them to acknowledge it.
This is the first major film role for Alana Haim, and she’s electrifying; it is certainly not a coincidence that she share the character’s first name, nor that she is surrounded by a family exactly like her own (and played by them as well, including their mother and father). It would be easy to dismiss her casting as a friendly favor – Anderson has directed a number of HAIM’s videos – but it’s more than that. Watch very carefully the way she laughs and smiles as she walks away from after their first conversation, once her guard is down, or a later scene of her at dinner with her boss (Benny Safdie), as she listens with all of her intensity and pieces everything that he’s not telling her together. That’s not a lark, or a musician moonlighting. That’s a film acting career, blossoming before your eyes.
Cooper Hoffman also comes from the PTA circle – his father was the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who appeared in several of Anderson’s films. He has a warm, easy presence, and he actually looks like a real teenager, with mussy hair and bad skin and loose limbs, which is weirdly revelatory. Not that any of that teenage awkwardness stuff is a factor; Gary is a hustler, who veers from child acting to waterbed sales to arcade management over the course of the narrative (don’t ask, it makes sense), and Hoffman conveys the confidence this guy could not get by without.
Comparisons have already been made between Licorice Pizza and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Anderson is certainly playing in the same stylistic sandbox as OUATIH – that L.A. vibrancy, industry town feeling, radios blasting, sunlight baking. And its ‘70s Valley setting and coming-of-age arc frequently recalls his own breakthrough film Boogie Nights. But he’s a different filmmaker now, and he’s not playing the hits here; Anderson’s delightful strangeness, the sprung comic sensibility of later works like Inherent Vice, keeps him from veering too far into nostalgia. Those impulses don’t always pay off (there’s a weird bit with John Michael Huggins as a racist sushi restaurant owner that doesn’t work at all), but when they do – like the long, strange, cockeyed sequence involving an unhinged Bradley Cooper, a botched waterbed installation, and a hair-raising truck ride on an empty tank of gas – they really do. Some laughs are prompted by odd situations and ripe characters, others out of sheer respect that he’s not only doing what he’s doing, but sustaining it.
And what he’s doing in the closing sequence – which don’t worry, I wouldn’t dream of revealing – is awe-inspiring, underscoring through careful manipulation of plot mechanics and imagery from throughout the picture, how much these two care for each other. They may play games and may play cool, but in that breathless passage, Licorice Pizza has an openness and vulnerability that’s closer to his early work, specifically to Magnolia, and its willingness to swing for the emotional fences in a way his later films might not. In other words, Licorice Pizza finds Paul Thomas Anderson combining the heart of his early films with the form of his latter work. It is, in its way, the best of both worlds.
“Licorice Pizza” is out Wednesday in limited release and Christmas Day in theaters everywhere.