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Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Licorice Pizza' is an endearing slice of '70s Hollywood

Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim are unlikely friends in <em>Licorice Pizza.</em>
Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim are unlikely friends in Licorice Pizza.

The words "Licorice Pizza" are never spoken in Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie, Licorice Pizza, and so you may wonder where the title comes from, especially if you weren't in Southern California in the '70s. It's the name of an old chain of record stores that were around when Anderson was growing up in the San Fernando Valley. The movie unfolds like a jumbled '70s flashback, one that he seems to have scrapped together by rummaging through cherished old stories and songs. We hear some of them on the gloriously overstuffed soundtrack: Nina Simone, Sonny & Cher, The Doorsand others. The movie is funny, shaggy and altogether wonderful.

It's also an obvious labor of love, starring two young actors with whom Anderson has some history. One of them is Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was one of Anderson's regular collaborators. Cooper Hoffman plays a 15-year-old go-getter with the made-for-Hollywood name of Gary Valentine.

At the beginning of the movie, Gary meets a 20-something photographer's assistant named Alana; she's played by Alana Haim, who's part of a rock trio, Haim, with her two sisters. They've appeared in several short films and music videos directed by Anderson. Alana Haim is a revelation here, with a radiant star-is-born aura that hooks you the moment she first appears.

The movie is something of a romantic comedy, but a platonic one. Gary is instantly smitten with Alana and tries to impress her, bragging about his acting career — he has one movie under his belt — and the PR company he runs with his busy single mom.

Alana dismisses him at first, noting their age difference, but something about Gary's insistent charm wears her down, and a friendship forms. Gary's 15 minutes in Hollywood are soon over, but he's an unusually enterprising kid, and he soon opens a waterbed company in the Valley, and Alana, who has nothing better to do, becomes his business partner.

Their relationship is a series of rocky ups and downs, separations and reunions. Gary loves Alana and never stops trying to win her over. Alana admires Gary's entrepreneurial spirit, but she's also easily turned off by his immaturity and wonders why she's hanging out with him and his 15-year-old friends to begin with. The movie sends them zig-zagging from one comic episode to the next. Not all of them work — I cringed at a recurring comic bit in which the actor John Michael Higgins talks to his Japanese wife in an exaggerated accent.

But Anderson is on more solid footing when he shows Gary and Alana getting caught up in the craziness of 1970s Hollywood. At one point, Alana is clearly out of her element when she has drinks with a motorcycle-riding actor who's meant to evoke William Holden, played by a gravel-voiced Sean Penn. Later, Alana, Gary and their friends deliver a waterbed to the Hollywood producer and notorious sex pest Jon Peters, played by a hilarious Bradley Cooper.

Gary Valentine is a young stand-in for Gary Goetzman, a prolific film and TV producer whose colorful stories about '70s Hollywood, including his own start as a child actor, drive a lot of the plot in Licorice Pizza. That said, it's an Anderson movie through and through. It might be sunnier and more laid-back than his earlier dramas like There Will Be Bloodand The Master, but it's no less rich in historical detail. One of the movie's funniest set-pieces, an action scene involving a runaway truck, takes place during the gas shortages that would cause car lines to stretch on for miles. A more serious subplot finds Alana working as a volunteer for the 1973 L.A. mayoral campaign of Joel Wachs, played by Benny Safdiewith a deceptive golden-boy smile.

No matter what shenanigans Alana and Gary tumble into, nearly every episode ends in disillusionment. Grown-ups — and especially grown-up men — are so phony, so disappointing, so corrupt. And the men who work in the movies may be the worst of all: For all his affection for old Hollywood, Anderson isn't afraid to lay bare the tawdry side of the industry and the dangers it poses, especially for an impressionable young woman like Alana.

And so there's something satisfying about how consistently Licorice Pizza rejects movie making convention. It's clearly influenced by American Graffiti, another portrait of California youth, but it also has the loose-and-limber vibe of great '70s filmmakers like Robert Altman and Hal Ashby. Anderson delights in filling the screen with wonderfully unglamorous young faces, freckles, pimples and all. Both Hoffman and Haim are terrific, and Haim in particular has so much natural warmth and charisma that you'd gladly follow her into another movie — especially if it were as endearing and singular as this one.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.