Licorice Pizza: A Meandering, Hazy, Beautiful Mess
About an hour into Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film, Alana, played by acting newcomer Alana Haim, says to Sean Penn’s Jack Holden, “Is this lines? Or is this real?”. And that, ladies and gentlemen, perfectly sums up my thoughts on Licorice Pizza. So much of this movie feels like a dream, like a story your mind makes up while thinking back on the days of your youth. And, like a dream, so much of this movie is incoherent, irrelevant, and downright baffling. But also like a vivid, melancholy dream, I can’t get it out of my head.
Licorice Pizza’s paper-thin plot revolves around Gary, played by Hollywood prince Cooper Hoffman, son of iconic actor Philip Seymore Hoffman, as he gallivants around 1970’s San Fernando Valley, a suburb of L.A. Anyone mildly familiar with the works of Wes Anderson will immediately pick up strong Max Fisher vibes, the precocious 15-year-old from Anderson’s sophomore film Rushmore. Gary, like Max, is a young up-and-coming entrepreneur, owning and operating a public relations company when we’re first introduced to him.
This is also where Max and Alana first meet as well, Alana quickly revealing to Max, after he aggressively cajoles her, that she is 10 years his senior. This doesn’t faze Max as he seems to be spurred on by this revelation. Throughout the next 25–30 minutes, Alana repels every romantic gesture that is thrown her way by Max. That is until Max, inexplicably and out of nowhere, is arrested for a murder that apparently happened nearby and is never spoken of again. Awkward plot convenience? Possibly.
From this point on, Alana seems smitten with Gary, in a curious but not romantic way, at least not on the surface. She follows him around as dives headlong into his latest business venture: water beds, which the name of the business, Soggy Bottom, was the long-rumored title for the film. The person Gary buys the first bed from is none other than George DiCaprio, father of you know who, and is far from the only cameo from a familial Hollywood star.
Licorice Pizza, among many, many other things, is PTA’s love letter to the new Hollywood generation. In addition to George DiCaprio, we see Tim Conway Jr., Maya Rudolph (daughter of singer-songwriter Minnie Riperton and composer Richard Rudolph), and Sasha Spielberg daughter of you also know who. In addition to familial Hollywood connections, Anderson also includes a character based directly on new Hollywood actors themselves. We get Christine Ebersole based on the iconic comedic actress, Lucille Ball, Sean Penn depicting Jack Holden, who is loosely based on Oscar-winning actor William Holden, and Gary Valentine himself (Cooper Hoffman) is based on Paul Thomas Anderson’s friend Gary Goetzman a former child star. I could on and on about all the connections in this film but you get the idea.
If you Google Licorice Pizza controversy, you’ll most likely find article after article about a certain character by the name of Jerry Frick (played by John Michael Higgins). Jerry and his first wife Mioko own a Japanese restaurant and are Greg’s one and only client we see at his public relations company. Greg’s mom, and his employee, Anita, pitch Jerry and Mioko on a new ad campaign, at the end Anita asks Jerry what he thinks. He turns to Mioko and, out of fucking nowhere, starts talking to her in an extraordinarily racist Asian accent. There’s no reason for the scene, no reason for the characters, and no reason for the subplot at all, and the fact that it’s in there at all baffles the mind.
With that said, Licorice Pizza is a film that anyone with a predilection for Hal Ashby’s Harold And Maude, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Richard Linklater's Dazed And Confused, or Tarantino’s most recent Once Upon A Time In Hollywood will find kindred spirits in the world and characters that Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted.