'Licorice Pizza' review: P.T. Anderson's tale of young love delivers

It's love on the run in this '70s-set tale of youth and a defining teenage crush.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Paul Thomas Anderson is punch drunk on young love in "Licorice Pizza," his positively giddy '70s-set tale of romance and coming-of-age. The two lovebirds at its center are scrappy 15-year-old child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of late Anderson-regular Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his crush Alana Kane (Alana Haim, guitarist in the sisterly rock trio Haim), who is 10 years his elder. 

Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in "Licorice Pizza."

Calling it a romance right off the bat is a bit of a misnomer. "Licorice Pizza" is about Gary's dogged pursuit of Alana, and the ways he continually tries to impress her and convince her to love him back the way he loves her. It's a teenage dream, full of high highs, crashing lows and nutty asides, and writer-director Anderson falls comfortably into the rhythms and cadences of the erratic, innocent, sweet, horny mind of the teenage American male. 

Hoffman and Haim are both first-time actors, a high-stakes gamble which pays off handsomely in terms of the pair's believability on-screen. They have no outside baggage and they ooze charm and authenticity, not to mention extreme likability. If they didn't, the enterprise would fall flat on its face, which thankfully never happens, a credit to both the actors and the world Anderson builds inside his beloved San Fernando Valley in the 1970s.

(A note: Licorice Pizza was a '70s chain of Southern California record stores and is never mentioned in the movie, which is a fun bit of trivia but doesn't make for a great title; it would be like if a Metro Detroit-set love story was for no other reason titled "Harmony House" — which, actually, is a better title than "Licorice Pizza.")  

Cooper Hoffman in "Licorice Pizza."

The pair first meets when she's an assistant to a photographer on picture day at his high school. He immediately starts hitting on her; she rebuffs him but is intrigued, mostly by the level of goofy confidence he exudes. That confidence is something of a façade, but he does a good enough job of convincing her of it that he starts to believe in his own swagger himself. 

They start to hang around each other a lot, no funny stuff, but he's intoxicated by her and she appreciates his attention. And he slowly begins to wear her down over a series of episodes — small dates in local restaurants, a trip to New York where he's participating in a cast reunion for the sitcom where he got his start, a gig selling waterbeds, etc. — where he's happy to be around her but is working overtime to get himself out of the friend zone. On the periphery is the world of Hollywood and politics (she takes a gig working for a politician running for mayor) that threatens to rob them of their youthful idealism. 

Eventually these episodes — including late-inning chapters with Sean Penn as a gonzo actor and Bradley Cooper as self-obsessed film producer — stretch the film thin; if ever there was a movie for Anderson to bring in at 90 minutes, this is it. And the climax could use a few more sparks: investment in the pair over the course of the movie is deeper than what is rewarded at the film's emotional payoff. 

But it's a fun ride and it's Anderson's most carefree lark of a film, and the way he frames and lights Hoffman's and Haim's faces show the level of unabashed affection he has for his characters and his story. That carries over to the audience, whose faith in the characters is an essential component to the film's success. "Licorice Pizza" isn't a story about everlasting love, it's about young love, and Anderson captures the frenzied feelings of teenage affection. It's a fleeting thing in the long run, but that doesn't make it any less real. 



'Licorice Pizza'


Rated R: for language, sexual material and some drug use

Running time: 133 minutes

In theaters