As a young, Jewish boy growing up in small town Ohio, I was in awe of the B’nai B’rith girls such as Sue Malkoff, Jodi Raven and Sharon Marks. They had such supreme confidence, mercurial tempers, and smarts. I was always jealous of how put together they were with their Izod shirts, corduroys, and suede Wallabee shoes and the way they entered a room as if they owned the place. Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Licorice Pizza, opens on such a person. Alana (Alana Haim from the sisterly pop trio Haim) struts impatiently across a school yard looking for anyone who needs to use her mirror. She’s working as a photographer’s assistant helping the students get prepared for their class pictures. It’s 1973 and twenty-five-year-old Alana has no time for these San Fernando Valley High School idiots. In an instant, I knew this woman. I missed people like this in life and on screen, those three-dimensional characters with quirks, faults, and outspokenness fueled by equal parts elation and outrage. My old friends came flooding back along with the Debra Wingers and Holly Hunters of cinema. I knew I was in movie heaven right away.
Soon, Alana happens upon Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). Although this fifteen-year-old falls instantly in love with her, Alana swats him away like a fly, but he’s made an impression nonetheless with his intense gaze and assuredness. He asks her out. She refuses, but you know she’ll show up anyhow, perhaps simply to toy with him, feel some validation, or maybe, just maybe, meet her soulmate. The age difference poses a problem for sure, but Anderson keeps things chaste throughout while still allowing this beautiful depth of feeling to materialize.
Gary, based on former child actor turned Academy Award-winning Producer, Gary Goetzman, has had a promising acting career, currently in a film, clearly based on Yours, Mine And Ours, in which the real Gary appeared. Alana accompanies him on a promotional appearance in New York City where Christine Ebersole earns laughs as the Lucille Ball proxy. Alana meets one of Gary’s co-stars, Lance (Skyler Gisondo) who nails his young ladies man character, and the two start dating. When he’s welcomed into Alana’s home for dinner, with Haim’s real sisters and parents (all wonderful) in tow, their incompatibility comes into hilarious focus.
From here, the film takes on a shaggy, seemingly random quality, with disparate story strands woven throughout. We go on adventures with our couple as they open a waterbed store, a pinball arcade, and encounter real-life people like producer Jon Peters (a scene-stealing Bradley Cooper) and City Councilman Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). At one point, Alana becomes smitten with an aging movie star based on William Holden and played by Sean Penn. There’s a false arrest, a dead-on meeting with a talent agent played to perfection by Harriet Sansom Harris, and a stunning sequence involving a truck driven backwards down a winding road. It’s a lot to digest and would sound ramshackle as hell were I to describe it, but through it all, Anderson stays intensely focused on our central relationship as we watch them grow separately and together, their magnetic connection realized by the repeated motif of them in what seems like a perpetual state of running. As each finds their voice, Anderson seems to be saying, they will always run back towards each other.
None of this would work without the beautiful lead performances by two actors making their debuts. They look like real people, not movie stars, and have unheard of things like acne, noses with character, and most important of all, layers. Hoffman has such a winning presence. Witness how he describes the food at a restaurant as “magnificent” or how believably he tells Alana he will never forget her. Moreover, the two have a palpable chemistry which oozes deep care for each other rather than anything overtly sexual. One glimpse of Alana’s face when she arrives at a jail where Gary’s been taken tells that story so succinctly. The film has an abundance of such grace notes, enough to make me ache for this pair.
Supporting our main duo throughout is a 70s aesthetic which never calls attention to itself. It’s just there in Mark Bridges’ costumes, which brought that decade perfectly yet subtly back to me in perfect focus. It’s there in Florencia Martin’s production design, which eschews such obvious signposts as lava lamps and black light posters for a natural lived-in quality to the spaces. It’s there in Anderson and co-cinematographer Michael Bauman’s shimmering, gauzy, hazy, sun-dappled frames. Andy Jurgensen’s editing takes this episodic, hangout story and emotionally shapes it into something warm and wonderful. I’ve long admired Anderson’s films, although I’ve enjoyed many at a distance. With this film, he finally, truly lets us in as it’s filled with rushes of complete joy.
Now to the elephant in the room. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans has called for an awards boycott of the film due to its insensitive, racism aimed at its Asian characters. The scenes in question show John Michael Higgins’ restaurateur character speaking English with an offensively stereotypical accent towards two of his wives depicted throughout the story. Anderson has defended these moments by saying that casual racism existed then as it does now, so why not depict it? While I don’t think Anderson is racist himself, and it mainly serves to make Higgins’ character look buffoonish, I found these scenes to display a serious lapse in judgment. The film isn’t about racism, so these moments feel completely out of place within the larger context of the story. Just because it happens in real life doesn’t justify its presence, especially since Anderson doesn’t contextualize it or even examine its impact on our main characters. These exchanges could and should have been excised completely and we, the audience, would never have missed them. They’re real head-scratchers to me. I applaud the Network for calling these egregious moments out and feel Anderson was too caught up in the quirkiness of the character to truly grasp its negative impact.
Anderson fares a little bit better with his gay characters, giving one couple enough real estate in the script to delve into the struggles of being out and queer during this time period. Famed choreographer Ryan Heffington, however, plays right into certain gay stereotypes but makes his brief role as Jon Peters’ assistant memorable nonetheless. He may seem like a 70s campy queen, but he also sprinkles in a palpable sense of self-importance and a funny way with his reactions to go beyond the cliches.
Named after a long-gone chain of Southern California record stores, Licorice Pizza sits at the top of the heap as one of my favorite films of 2021. Though this near masterpiece gets a big ding from me for the aforementioned offensiveness, I’d love to own a copy of this film with either those scenes cut out or perhaps footage exists which allowed these moments to land better. Either way, Anderson has turned an epic tale into an intimate, lovingly acted tribute to those forces of nature, those girls from my childhood. Welcome back Sue, Jodi and Sharon!
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Licorice Pizza is now playing in theaters only. No streaming announcements have been made at time of publishing.