Paul Thomas Anderson conjures a nostalgic SoCal vibe in the delightful Licorice Pizza

click to enlarge Newcomers Cooper Hoffman and 
Alana Haim both shine in Licorice Pizza.
Newcomers Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim both shine in Licorice Pizza.

No matter how expansive his films get, Paul Thomas Anderson always returns home to the San Fernando Valley. The sprawl of Los Angeles suburbs where Anderson grew up is home to Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love, and Anderson creates his most loving portrait of his birthplace in Licorice Pizza. Set in 1973 and inspired by both Anderson's own memories and by the life of producer Gary Goetzman, Licorice Pizza is a delightfully shaggy coming-of-age story about teenage hustler and former child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman).

The movie opens with Gary meeting Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a twentysomething woman working as a photographer's assistant at Gary's high school on picture day. Gary is immediately smitten with Alana, and Anderson (who's also the movie's co-cinematographer) shoots their initial meeting in fluid, energetic long takes, weaving through the school hallways as the fast-talking Gary tries to convince Alana to go on a date with him.

She declines his romantic overtures, but they start spending time together anyway, as Alana gets drawn in to Gary's various schemes. She accompanies him as his "guardian" at press appearances for a movie he acted in, and she works alongside him in his business venture attempting to capitalize on the growing waterbed craze. Gary never gives up on pursuing a relationship with her, and Hoffman portrays him with a mix of confidence and naïveté, an inexperienced kid convinced he knows exactly what he's doing.

Alana may be older (although she's vague on her exact age), but she's just as immature as Gary, still living with her parents and sisters (played by Haim's real-life family, including her sisters and bandmates from indie-pop trio Haim), aimlessly drifting through jobs. She worries that it's strange for her to spend her time hanging out with teenagers, but her forays into more adult worlds prove frustrating and difficult.

At first, Licorice Pizza looks like it's mainly Gary's story, but Alana's journey is richer and more complex, embodied by Haim's magnetic, exuberant performance. Both Haim and Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a longtime Anderson collaborator) make remarkable screen debuts here, but Alana emerges as the center of the movie, engaging with the changing social and political values of the time while Gary remains blissfully oblivious.

Anderson highlights the 1970s fuel shortage along with the racism, sexism and homophobia of the era, but Licorice Pizza isn't primarily concerned with social commentary. It's mostly about conjuring up a vibe, immersing the audience in a place that is simultaneously anonymous suburbia and Hollywood-adjacent, where small-time bit players like Gary can hang out in bars and restaurants alongside major movie stars.

Anderson throws in exaggerated versions of Hollywood big shots, some under pseudonyms (Sean Penn as a William Holden type, Christine Ebersole as a Lucille Ball type) and some under their actual names. Bradley Cooper steals the movie in a few scenes as notoriously temperamental producer Jon Peters, who brags about his relationship with Barbra Streisand and threatens to kill Gary's family if Gary's crew messes up his waterbed delivery. The manic rush to escape from Peters' wrath, in an unwieldy truck that has run out of gas, is a hilarious and suspenseful highlight.

Eventually, Licorice Pizza gets a little too shaggy, running past two hours and cycling through repetitive fights and reconciliations in Gary and Alana's relationship. The episodic incidents are all entertaining, and the movie meanders toward a satisfying conclusion, keeping the questionable dynamic between the two characters mostly chaste while hinting at a potential future. Licorice Pizza is a small-scale pleasure compared to some of Anderson's acclaimed, monolithic dramas, but it might be the filmmaker's most purely enjoyable movie. ♦

Three and Half Stars LICORICE PIZZA
Rated R
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim

Banff Mountain Film Festival @ Panida Theater

Fri., Jan. 21, 7 p.m., Sat., Jan. 22, 7 p.m. and Sun., Jan. 23, 6 p.m.
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