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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Quirky and Fun
by Frank Wilkins

Let’s first address the elephant in the room: that unappealing title of the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson called Licorice Pizza. It comes from a now-defunct Southern California record store chain that enjoyed its heyday in the ‘70s. Perfectly appropriate for the weird, free spirited film he sets in the ‘70s San Fernando Valley. The film follows the whirlwind relationship between child actor Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in his debut role) who is aging out of his career, and rudderless 20-something Alana (newcomer Alana Haim, member of the Haim sisters band) whose career has peaked as a school portrait photographer’s assistant.

That’s where the two meet – at 15-year-old Gary’s school, and what follows is a glorious blaze through a specific time and place that hits on all the things that make coming of age so wonderful -- the thrill of first love, the taste of adulthood, and the discovery of what can be. And as aimless as the lives of Gary and Alana are, so is the story’s plot. What little plot there is, actually.

Some will find themselves wondering what the point of it all is. After all, not much really happens and there’s even less of a cohesive narrative. But that’s actually the fun of it all. It’s a wonderfully told story about a few days in the lives of a couple of relatively normal people going about their anything-but-normal lives. And we are along for the ride, wishing it could go on forever as we relish the quirkiness of the story about a particular time and place in America. Think American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused. And by the way, it is every bit as good as either of those two films.

Speaking of quirkiness, much of the film’s charm comes from the ridiculously bizarre and colorful characters Alana and Gary encounter along the way. There’s Bradley Cooper’s Jon Peters, a coked-up womanizing Hollywood sycophant who doubles as a hairdresser and movie producer and who never lets anyone around him forget he’s currently dating Barbra Streisand – “sand” like the ocean.

Then there’s Sean Penn’s aging action movie star, Jack Holden – a hilarious riff on real life’s William Holden – and his best friend and film director Rex Blau, played perfectly by musician Tom Waits who makes one of this year’s greatest screen entrances. You’ll know it when you see it. The two ol’ pals gather all the bar patrons at a nearby golf course to re-enact an action scene from one of their Korean War films.

The remainder of the story involves the many career schemes Alana and Gary drum up. Gary catches on to the new water bed phenomenon and opens a water bed store while also taking advantage of a new California law that legalizes pinball machines by opening up a pinball arcade. The driving force however, is the fact that Gary and Alana are obviously in love. We see it, but they don’t.

If it all sounds too bizarre to believe, that’s because it really is. In fact, this film is totally over-the-top bonkers most of the time but is absolutely grounded by the magnetism and attraction on display by Hoffman and Haim, Their relationship smolders with authenticity. And kudos to PTA for knowing what he has with the two young actors and nourishing that chemistry. With such a plotless narrative, and so many moving parts involved, it would be easy to lose control of a story like this. But as it is, we are totally invested in the vibe this thing exudes.

As of late, Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have been heavily-plotted affairs that deal with complex characters in intricately detailed relationships. Quite frankly, his films have become a challenge to sit through – see Phantom Thread, Inherent Vice, and The Master as examples. However, Licorice Pizza is quite the opposite with a cool hangout vibe that will leave you laughing and smiling. Licorice Pizza is delicious. Give it a try.

 (Released by MGM and rated “R” for language, sexual material and some drug use.)

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