“Licorice Pizza”: West Coast Comfort Food

Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in "Licorice Pizza".

“Hey, wanna get some Fun Dips and go see Last Tango in Paris at Grauman’s? I have to bring an adult so they’ll let me in.”

It’s a bit early but I’m counting down the days till this year’s Academy Awards nominations are announced on February 8th, which will begin my annual Oscar Quest to see all the Best Picture nominees before the big ceremony on March 27th. These past couple years, the streaming era has made it easier than ever to make a side quest of catching nominees in the other categories as well. A few weeks ago I decided to get a head start by catching possible contenders in advance and thereby easing up my viewing load during the season itself. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza was one of a few ballyhooed works to convince me after the fact that, on second thought, I’ll wait till AMPAS voters tell me which ones I “have” to see and go from there.

Though Anderson began working on Pizza before the pandemic, filming didn’t begin till the world was in the thick of it. He’s among many artists who’ve spent time in the COVID era creating from within their personal comfort zones, arguably as much for the sake of therapeutic self-expression as for an appreciative audience that needs and craves escape hatches from the nation-sized pressure cooker that everyday life has become. Results of such projects can sometimes be more personal than others, too intensively “you had to be there” for anyone outside family and friends to appreciate their full context, like a vacation slideshow.

Pizza doesn’t claim outright it’s “Based on a True Story” and doesn’t get anywhere near his possibly interesting adult years, but Anderson’s plucky whelp was significantly modeled on the anecdotally rich life of Gary Goetzman, a onetime child star (as one of Lucille Ball’s ragamuffins in Yours, Mine and Ours) turned producer whose longtime partnerships with assorted directors gave us such films as That Thing You Do!, The Polar Express, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and more more more. As a moderately alt-timeline version of Goetzman, newcomer Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour) is Gary Valentine, a precocious 15-year-old in early-’70s California who’s unperturbed by his mounting audition failures and turning his plucky entrepreneurial spirit in other directions. Lucky for him, his mom’s company is well-to-do enough that she bankrolls his flavor-or-the-month endeavors without oversight, accountability, or the slightest complaint each time he abandons a short-term pipe dream. Maybe all those tax write-offs count as Mother’s Day gifts.

Gary’s in one corner, a drastically mirror-universe version of my 15-year-old self in more ways than I care to confess, but with slightly longer bangs instead of an evil goatee. In the other corner is Alana Haim as Alana Not-Haim, whose family the Not-Haims are played entirely by all the other Haims, including the other two Haims from the pop band Haim. When they meet, Alana is a 25-year-old school photographer’s assistant whose career path is likewise in flux but whose refusal to date a high schooler is firm. His huckster’s cockiness is just persuasive and entertaining enough that she’s open to the idea of becoming friends and coworkers. In a lot of films that mixture would sooner or later prove volatile. This is one of those films.

For a preponderance of the run-time that was wisely avoided in the trailer, Gary becomes the local king of the burgeoning waterbed fad, which was an invention that you can ask a parent about sometime. My best friends’ mom had one. The bouncy mattress was fun; climbing over the skin-scraping wooden frame was not. It’s an apt metaphor for the highs and lows as the just-friends tension never goes away. She insists it can’t be romantic, but he’s 15 and of course dreams otherwise. Neither of them really knows what they want to do with their lives beyond the moment they’re in. Gary revels in it with an immature confidence and an expectation of a future relationship upgrade, with split-second one-note dalliances to pass the time. Alana more or less drifts along as she eyes other men in her path — all older than Gary, some decades older than her. All of them are leches and/or users in some form who don’t get far with her. She minds the age gap in one direction but not the other. The film kind of meanders along with them till they figure things out, to the extent that youngsters can do that.

Though a few weird critics have deemed Pizza Anderson’s answer to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but Hollywood isn’t solely where its heart is, and his focus isn’t on deep-dive movie trivia or bloodthirsty history-vengeance fanfic. A pervasive sentimentality for southern Golden State yesteryear is the mood as Alana and Gary’s misadventures through other Hollywood-adjacent neighborhoods linger not just on waterbeds but on other touchpoints. The energy crisis rears its head for possibly the first time in a movie since 1980, a situation that complicated any industries that relied on, among other equipment, delivery trucks or plastics. In a wilder film, Alana and Gary would track down a doppelganger of that guy from The Graduate and drown him in the Braddock family pool.

Pinball machines become a driving force later in Gary’s journey after a real-life 1974 Supreme Court decision effectively overturns a California ban on them, back when the Court was still riding high on youth-culture plaudits a year after Roe v. Wade. I for one would love a documentary about this bemusing development in gaming history that they hid from us in school. Alas, no, Pizza is about gross men of all ages, about the ins and outs of the waterbed biz, and of course about star-crossed non-lovers, sort of.

I’m a fan of blatantly unconventional-looking couples not unlike Alary here, resplendent in their zits and their moderately priced period togs. Sometimes their interactions are sweet despite their frustrations, as we’re reminded some minors have their act more together than certified adults do, which only amplifies the disparities and jealousies when they intersect. At other times, the film feels as aimless as its duo does, as if it’s merely enough to inhabit those golden-oldie Cali valleys without worrying whether there’s a point to it all. Slice-of-life tales can be cool, but one has to wonder whether we care deeply enough about the vicissitudes of their relationship that we’re willing to tag along with their every escapade. In the case of the endless Waterbed Wizard saga at its core…um, no. Maybe it would help if I super-loved California and got all the references on the spot, but I haven’t had the pleasure of stepping foot there. Maybe someday I will, and this will all mean more.

Licorice Pizza was apparently the name of some bygone chain of west-coast record shops way back when. They’re mentioned nowhere in the film (neither are records, for that matter) but meant a lot to Anderson and, I suppose, to their former customers. A more nuanced and naturalistic reworking Empire Records would’ve seemed a more direct tribute to what I presume were smartly curated shelves full of outstanding musical assortments. Anderson’s pivot away from that perhaps too-obvious choice is even more baffling considering he’s only a year older than me and a lot of these elements would’ve been slightly before our time. Nevertheless, rather than remind me of the tacky beige-and-sepia era of my childhood photo albums, Pizza brought to mind Nu-Morpheus’ much-quoted line from The Matrix Resurrections: “Nothing soothes anxiety like a little nostalgia.” If the filmmaking process got Anderson through these past two miserable years, more power to him.

Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Like its Goetzman roman à clef foundation, audience members “in the know” could recognize real people represented in the oddball character parade, most of whose names have been changed so the internet can’t dogpile Anderson for rewriting history. Bradley Cooper plays the absolutely real producer/madman Jon Peters, who would go on to help get Batman movies off the ground; who was a guiding light behind the misguided Superman Lives (which neither Tim Burton, Nicolas Cage, nor Kevin Smith could make happen); and whose wish for a giant robot spider in the latter film was later carried over into the misbegotten Wild Wild West. Here, Cooper’s wacky Peters brings some energy to his few scenes as an eccentric waterbed customer. Based on the clips I’ve seen of the real McCoy, Cooper plays him with way too much restraint.

Sean Penn is Totally Not William Holden, even though his last name is Holden and I could’ve sworn I heard someone call him “Bill”, but no, he swears his first name is Jack. Tom Waits is a riff on a director friend of his; together they relive their past collaborations at the expense of now. Uncut Gems co-director Benny Safdie is future L.A. city councilman Joel Wachs (who gets thanked in the end credits), who’s running for his first office and in a vulnerable position for the era. Joseph Cross (Milk, Mank) is a very special acquaintance of his.

Christine Ebersole is the most convincing Not Lucille Ball of 2021, and Yours, Mine and Ours is renamed Under One Roof. Harriet Sansom Harris (Frasier Crane’s agent Bebe, last seen in Anderson’s superior Phantom Thread) is a specifically real child-actor agent. Anderson’s longtime S.O. Maya Rudolph is a casting director working alongside Tim Conway Jr., whom I now know exists. Leonardo DiCaprio’s dad is a groovy waterbed salesman who changes Gary’s life for a while.

Frequently brilliant comedian John Michael Higgins plays a real-life restaurateur whose interactions with his Japanese companions, as jaw-droppingly outrageous as they are, accurately nail one of those obsolete forms of cutesy racism that Americans weren’t yet stomping out at the time. His aren’t the film’s only ’70s interactions that in today’s hyper-evaluative climate come off as, shall we say, super retro.

Emma Dumont (Bunheads, The Gifted) deserved far more than a single scene as a stewardess. Hopefully Anderson will consider her for larger roles in future gigs.

One scene at a “Teen-Age Fair”, where attendees could meet “the real Munsters!”, features a fly-by Herman Munster who only has one line, enough for me to recognize the voice of John C. Reilly under the green makeup.

A lot of the extras were the director’s own friends and family, including his and Ms. Rudolph’s own kids, plus a lot of non-acting kids of other famous folks.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Licorice Pizza end credits, but anyone who sticks around for the entirety of Anderson’s usual non-scrolling, static flashcards can listen to “But You’re Mine”, a golden oldie by the world-famous married duo of Sonny and Cher, who were eleven years apart in age.

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