I have very mixed feelings about this one – earlier this week I went to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza in the local Picturehouse cinema, and I’m still digesting some aspects of it. I did enjoy watching this movie, but the age gap seen between the two main characters has me confused – which I will address in detail later.
Licorice Pizza is a coming-of-age story which follows Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a photography assistant as she meets Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) – a teenage actor who is coming to the end of his child acting career and entering the world of entrepreneurship – on his school picture day. He is instantly attracted to her, and she rejects his advances at first but is mildly curious about him and they end up part friends, part business partners.
What follows is a series of ups and downs – both failed and successful projects and moments of both bonding and jealousy, and as an audience we are along for this ride. As he ages out of being a child star, Gary Valentine begins a series of businesses sometimes with the help of Alana. He begins by opening a business selling waterbeds. This is successful for a time, but falls apart when the oil supply to make the waterbeds becomes unavailable.
Alana and Gary move apart after this for a while, as she works in the mayor’s office and he comes up with his next idea as an entrepreneur; starting Fat Bernie’s Pinball palace; however, they are always pulled back together eventually through this inexplicable bond that they share.
This film is instantly reminiscent of the cult classics of the 80s, and it also places itself onto this list. It feels like something we’ve seen before, while at the same time being brand new. The rambling story, as well as the soundtrack and colour schemes all contribute to this mood being set throughout. This film is as nostalgic as they come; from the fashion to the sets to the colour schemes, it takes us somewhere many modern films don’t.
This film revolves around Alana Haim, and by extension the Haim sisters. Her presence and performance in this movie is unmissable; she fully embodies Alana Kane and immerses us in the story. Although this is her film debut, she is a natural on camera and we have no doubts in her as a movie star. She also shows a lot of confidence in how she is presented in this film; with a bare face for the most part, this creative choice helps us to buy into her character as a whole.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that Danielle and Este Haim also played her sisters in this film, and although it was unexpected it was also very satisfying. It meant that they have that sisterly bond built up already, but their vibe is also very in keeping with this movie. As a whole, it didn’t feel unlike an extended Haim music video. The aesthetics and nostalgia were right up their street and I couldn’t see anyone else doing the sisters justice.
Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philipp Seymour Hofmann also holds up his share of the movie; charming beyond his years, he portrays a wisdom and presence of a child star grown up too fast very believably. Also a first timer, Thomas Anderson makes the audience fully buy in to Hoffman as a movie star, and believe in his ability to hold our attention.
This film also features a huge amount of big name cameos; one of the most notable being Bradley Cooper as hot tempered waterbed customer Jon Peters, based on real life partner of Barbara Streisand. Cooper provides a much needed moment of comic relief at that moment and contributes fully to one of the more memorable aspects of the movie.
Other cameos included Sean Penn as “Jack” Holden, a William Holden clone, as well Tom Waits, Maya Rudolph who is real life partner of Thomas Anderson, and Benny Safdie. This lineup of star studded cameos serves to fully immerse us in the setting of the San Fernando Valley in the 70s.
All the above being said, the age gap is very difficult to get over; in fact I would say it overshadowed the whole film and made it an uncomfortable viewing experience. Gary Valentine is 15 when the story begins to Alana’s 25 and I’m honestly just not sure why; were he even 18 this would be different but with this age gap the story seems quite close to grooming. I’m not sure why they couldn’t have made him 18 and told the exact same story either – it would have made no difference to the plot.
Although story is more that of their friendship, the romantic possibility is always there in the background through their jealousy of other potential love interests and is therefore always slightly uncomfortable. This age gap is addressed by Alana multiple times both to Gary directly and to her sister Danielle; she comments on how weird it is yet still pursues the 15 year old? I was honestly baffled by this, and what it also says about her character.
This aspect casts a shadow on the rest of the otherwise brilliant movie and I also can’t help but think – how would we be reacting if this was a story about a 25 year old male and a 15 year old girl? I’m not sure it would be being overlooked in any capacity, or that it should be overlooked. Or, alternatively if Gary Valentine was played by a 15 year old actor – I think it would be highlighting the issue here in a way that the choice of cast seems to hide it somewhat.
At the end of the day, it is down to each viewer but I think this aspect of one of the main characters being a minor and it being pretty much totally overlooked would stop me from recommending this film. Paul Thomas Anderson looks like a contender for this year’s Academy Awards, and I still feel like a critical part of the conversation is missing here.