In 1960, the folk music duo of Bud & Travis recorded a concert album live at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. At some point, the both of them start making fun of their own unsuccessful record, stating that it had “sesame seeds on the other side” and could be played on a Waring blender. Just before going into their cover of “La Bamba”, they mention that the sesame seed LP was being sold at feed stores as a “licorice pizza.”
Flash forward to 1969, when James Greenwood founded a record shop inexplicably named in tribute to this random joke. The shop would grow into a full-fledged chain of record stores, with no less than 34 locations throughout the SoCal area until it was finally sold in 1985 to the nascent Sam Goody conglomerate (itself now a mere shadow of its former glory).
I mention all of this because the film never does. Licorice Pizza has absolutely fuck-all to do with “Licorice Pizza” the record store chain or “licorice pizza” the Bud & Travis routine. None of them are even mentioned in passing, not a one of them has anything to do with the plot. As best I can tell, the phrase “Licorice Pizza” is a kind of secret handshake, a dog whistle for those who grew up in the LA area back when the record store was a thing. It’s like one of those online memes, “If you know what this is, see the movie.”
So what does the film have to offer those who don’t have that nostalgic connection? Honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out.
Right off the bat, I was fascinated to give this movie a try because it features the debut of Alana Haim in a lead role. It’s not always an easy transition to go from musician to actor, and I must admit I was pleasantly surprised to see that she can indeed carry a film. But then the filmmakers went further and cast her as a character named Alana Kane. Same first name, same spelling and everything.
And then the filmmakers cast Danielle and Este Haim — famously Alana Haim’s actual sisters and bandmates — along with both of their parents. And they’re all playing Alana’s family, each character named after their respective actor. The entire Haim family is playing a lightly fictionalized version of themselves. We haven’t even started yet, and I have to ask what the fuck is this?
Anyway, we set our stage in Los Angeles and the plot unfolds through… let’s say the summer of 1973. Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, here also making his film debut) stars as Gary Valentine, a child actor who’s already built up a respectable CV at fifteen years old. He claims to be a showman, and that’s certainly not a lie, but he’s a hustler first and foremost.
At this point, it’s perhaps worth noting that Gary Valentine is a heavily fictionalized version of Gary Goetzman, a massively successful film producer. In his youth, Goetzman found early success as a child actor, started his own business as a waterbed salesman, delivered a bed to Jon Peters (here played as a coked-up hate sink by Bradley Cooper), and founded a pinball arcade. And yes, Gary Valentine does all of those things as the plot unfolds.
So where does Alana fit in? Well, Alana’s helping out the school photographers during photo day at Gary’s high school. The two meet up, Gary falls immediately in love with her, and she’s charmed enough to hang out with him. The kicker here is that he’s 15 and she’s 25.
(Side note: The actual Gary Goetzman has been married to someone named Lesley Ann Carroll since 1986. As best I can tell, she’s only five years his senior.)
Despite the age gap, Gary and Alana get to be good friends and business partners. They can never be any kind of proper item, but they still get a romance arc that’s the centerpiece of the movie. In fact, the central through-line of this movie is all about how a 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old woman grow closer together until they’re finally outright lovers.
At this point, you might be tempted to close the review altogether and turn your back on the film forever. I wouldn’t blame you. In fact, I’m right there with you.
What adds insult to the injury is in how utterly fractured the film is. Gary takes part in a massive song-and-dance number, but it never leads to anything and it’s never mentioned again. Gary gets arrested in a case of mistaken identity, he’s arrested five minutes later, and nobody ever mentions it again. The whole film is comprised of these five-minute sequences, any one of which could’ve been cut without affecting the rest of the film as a whole.
Now, that’s not to say a few of these segments aren’t enjoyable. Bradley Cooper is great fun playing an oblivious conceited asshole, Sean Penn is a bona fide force of nature as Jack Holden (loosely based on William Holden), and Tom Waits steals the damn show as a loose cannon director. Seriously, it’s almost worth seeing the movie just to see Tom Waits and Sean Penn riff off each other like they do. But then five minutes later, they’re out of the picture like they were never even there. Fuck.
To be clear, that’s not to say this particular structure can’t work — for instance, I’d argue that The Big Lebowski perfected it. But the big problem here is that the main throughline — the one thing that absolutely can’t be cut — is the illicit relationship between the adult woman and the teenage hustler.
Yes, Gary and Alana are both superbly developed. Gary is a teenager who carries himself like an adult, powering through every obstacle through ingenuity and sheer willpower. Meanwhile, Alana is an adult who’s still trying to find her place in the world. Implicitly, the film is trying to make the argument that age is just a number and I can’t even finish that sentence. Sorry, but if Gary has an outsized opinion of his own maturity and Alana is a case of arrested development, that only further makes the case that this whole romance is a horrible, terrible mistake.
Because the whole movie is so fractured and the one pivotal throughline is misguided wormshit, nothing in here congeals into anything coherent in terms of theme. Yes, the film works well enough as a love letter to Tinseltown of the 1970s, and I totally believe that Paul Thomas Anderson was sincere in his desire to make a film that evoked his own experiences growing up in the LA area. Trouble is, we’re not exactly at a loss for movies about the topic. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood only came out two years ago, for fuck’s sake. Hell, Paul Thomas Anderson himself gave us Boogie Nights, a far superior film set in roughly the same time and place.
Yes, Licorice Pizza is a technical marvel. It looks amazing, the soundtrack slaps, and the entire cast is wonderful, even if most of them only get five minutes of screentime apiece. Still, the film gave us incredible debut turns from Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, proving that the both of them have promising futures in film, and that’s no small accomplishment.
Trouble is, the basic premise that actively roots for our two romantic leads to enter into a pedophilic relationship is fatally flawed from the outset. Moreover, this is a film built around fictionalized versions of so many of Paul Thomas Anderson’s friends, starring a cast loaded with nepotism (Did I mention that one of Steven Spielberg’s kids is in here somewhere), and the film seems to have no point other than Anderson’s own childhood nostalgia. Put it all together, and the whole thing looks uncomfortably like a work of masturbation.
I know the film is being positioned and praised as a major awards contender, but I’m sorry, I’m not seeing it. I’m open to the possibility that I’m just not getting it, and the film is charming enough that I wish I could recommend it, until I remember that the charm is based off a teenage huckster romancing a woman nearly twice his age. Not recommended.