California Dreamin’

Newcomer stars give breakthrough performances in Paul Thomas Anderson’s graceful, charming ode to growing up in the 1970s

Alana Haim & Cooper Hoffman star in ‘Licorice Pizza’

Licorice Pizza
Starring Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Rated R
In theaters now

A charming Southern California coming-of-age tale set in the mid-1970s, Licorice Pizza takes a sweet, nostalgic look at an era when waterbeds were the new rage, Eastern food was exotic cuisine, pinball was a prohibited vice, the war in Vietnam was dragging on, and an oil embargo and gasoline crisis created endless lines of vehicles in the streets.  

Director Paul Thomas Anderson weaves all that, and more, into this affectionate, sprawling saga of a high school teen and his first-love crush on an “older” young woman.

Licorice Pizza is several things. It’s a love story, for sure. It’s an expertly rendered snapshot of a very specific time, teeming with detail, and a very specific place—L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, within tantalizing earshot of Hollywood’s glittery star-making machinery. And it’s the latest movie from one of the industry’s most acclaimed directors, who’s been nominated eight times for an Oscar.

It’s sprinkled with stardust and familiar faces, but it totally belongs to its two young leads. Cooper Hoffman plays Gary, a 15-year-old who becomes smitten on school-picture day by one of the photographer’s assistants, Alana. She’s played by Alana Haim, who in real life is part of the rock trio Haim, along with her two sisters, Este and Danielle (who appear in the movie as Alana’s movie siblings.) The Haims’ real-life parents also play Alana’s mom and dad.

The movie marks the acting debuts of both Hoffman and Haim, and they are nothing short of remarkable. Haim has already received several nominations, including nods from the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Golden Globes. And in Hoffman, you can plainly see the DNA of his father, the late Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, a go-to for director Anderson in several of his films, including Punch Drunk Love, Magnolia and Boogie Nights. In December, the younger Hoffman was recognized, along with Haim, for their breakthrough performances by the National Board of Review, which also cited Licorice Pizza as the year’s best film, and Anderson as the best director.

Anderson’s Magnolia had Tom Cruise; two of his other films, There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread, were both galvanized with immersive performances by Daniel Day-Lewis; Boogie Nights resurrected the career of Burt Reynolds. But neither Cooper nor Haim are glamour-puss, “known” actors, which gives Licorice Pizza its loose, shaggy, authentic, unpredictable feel. The arc of their characters’ relationship isn’t a conventional one, but their charisma and their commitment sell it, with all its quirks, and you believe it.  

Gary is a go-getter, an aspiring young actor, and he’s like a lovestruck puppy; Alana, a decade older, is cool, detached and listless, unsure of what to do with her life, or who do it with. Hoffman and Hiam center the film on their characters and the experiences that bond them—Gary coaching Alana for a meeting with a casting agent, the two becoming business partners in a waterbed store, a surprise encounter with the cops, Alana’s bravura navigation of a delivery truck in reverse, down a winding Hollywood hill. And through it all, there’s the awkwardness of a relationship shaking out its messy, uncertain wrinkles before it can unfold into romance.

In several scenes, the movie shows Gary and Alana running—joyous jaunts with each other, breathless sprints when one of them is in need, and, ultimately, toward each other.

The movie is loosely based on the experiences of an actual child actor and entrepreneur, Gary Goetzman, who as an adult became friends with director Anderson and regaled him with stories of his exploits, several of which occur in the film—with the business ventures of “movie Gary” and his hustle to get his acting career off the ground. (Goetzman went on to co-found Tom Hanks’ Playtone movie-production company.)

Although it’s never explained, the title comes from the name of a well-known (now gone) record-store chain throughout Southern California, back in the day.

There are other real-life connections in the film, too. Bradley Cooper has a most memorable turn as Hollywood celebrity hairdresser Jon Peters, who was famously linked in the 1970s to superstar singer-turned-actress Barbra Streisand. He’s flat-out hilarious as a hot-headed horndog who orders one of Gary’s waterbeds, telling Gary that “I love tail too much. You know how much tail I get? All of it,” and schooling him of the pronunciation of his current conquest: “It’s Streisand…Streis-hand.”

Sean Penn plays a movie icon based on William Holden

Sean Penn has a couple of scenes as Jack Holden, a macho, alcoholic actor modeled on real-life actor William Holden. Jack is still basking in the glow of his biggest movie, which bears a strong resemblance to William Holden’s 1954 World War II drama The Bridges of Toko-Ri. Looking to cast his next film, he has a brief flirtation with Alana, flattering her when he compares her to princess-actress Grace Kelly (the real Holden’s costar in that film). Tom Waits, the musician-turned-actor, has a juicy turn as Holden’s hard-drinking director, with a boozy swagger that recalls the iconic, globetrotting John Huston, the Ernest Hemingway of Hollywood filmmakers for several decades.

There’s SNL alum Christine Ebersol as Lucille Doolittle, a TV and movie icon clearly modeled on Lucille Ball. Watch for a familiar actor in a brief, uncredited appearance as Herman Munster, from TV’s The Munsters. John Michael Higgins, who hosts the syndicated TV gameshow America Says, plays the buoyant, Japanese-mangling owner of Gary’s favorite Japanese restaurant. Alana does volunteer work for a local rising politician with a secret, Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), based on an actual trailblazing member, with that name, of the L.A. City Council.

Steven Spielberg’s two daughters, Leo Di Caprio’s dad, Tim Conway’s adult son and director Anderson’s longtime romantic partner (Mia Rudolph), plus and their four children, also appear.

The rocking soundtrack—with carefully curated hits and deep cuts from Todd Rundgren, Sonny & Cher, David Bowie, Clarence Carter and Blood, Sweat & Tears—help define the time and accentuate the plot.

It’s all a delightful, delicious swirl of ingredients—like a licorice pizza—for a feel-good story that will charm its way into your heart, a heady, intoxicating rush of romance and nostalgia to remind us of the tricky, unsure navigation often required in growing up, finding a true soulmate and falling in love.

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