“The story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973.”

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Staring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper
Release Date: December 25, 2021

Licorice Pizza (2021) is a weird movie. Let’s get that on the table right now. Not often do you have a movie that has you shipping a relationship between a 15 year old and a 25 year old, but that is the story that Paul Thomas Anderson wields with Licorice Pizza.

Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a driven child actor with a sense of confidence many wish they possessed. Gary sees a young women by the name of Alana Kane (Alana Haim) one day while school pitchers are being taken at his high school. He displays his balls of steel and pursues Alana to ask her our, charming her to eventually meet him for a drink at his favorite local sport in San Fernando Valley.

From there, Valentine and Kane share a relationship that is wholly unique. They share business ventures and find their paths in the world in lockstep. The two share the classic will-they-won’t-they relationship, but the niche characteristics of the two main characters ensures that their path towards each other is not classic romantic comedy jargon. The two share their own up-and-downs and realize bits about themselves that can only be illuminated when they are with one another. Licorice Pizza doesn’t make it easy for you to watch their struggles, but come the end of the movie, you’ll be more invested in Valentine and Kane than you ever expected.

I fucking love the screenplay of Licorice Pizza. Right from the opening scene, the dialogue lassos you and draws you in. You are wondering how this relationship, which starts out as friendly and weird, is going to pan out. Licorice Pizza is a great illustration of what young love is like and how it can find anyone at any age. No matter what age you are, there are going to be confusing and conflicting emotions you have. Fear, desire and over-contemplation at experiences that everyone can see relate to their own life journey.

In Licorice Pizza, Alana is constantly fighting back the fact that Gary is so much younger than her. She asks her sisters if it is weird that she is hanging out with only him and his friends. She is constantly wondering what she is doing and what mess she got into. In the most exciting scene of the movie, Alana is steering a van backwards down a hill with Gary in the passenger seat. This is some great metaphorical storytelling from Mr. Thomas Anderson. Alana is literally driving backwards out of control with Gary by her side. She is steering through the chaos of her emotions and trying not to crash. When she gets down to the bottom of the hill and survives, it is a realization moment. She is staring at Gary and his friends and drawing the conclusion that she can no longer be retreating in her life; she needs to climb up, grow up, and not be anchored down.

Immediately after the close call with the van, Alana calls a former romantic interest who is older, and she begins working in politics. She is trying to grow up fast, but working within a new environment sheds a new light on the world she didn’t expect. Turns out, the adults in the rooms are not the brightest brains. She gets dragged into a messy love story centered around the mayoral candidate she is working for. Guess what Alana, questioning your fears and feelings in a relationship doesn’t change with age or occupation.

Now i get to talk about Alana Haim, who plays Alana in Licorice Pizza. She, is, fucking, great. You look at her and think she is pretty, but you watch Licorice Pizza and she turns sexy and irresistible. This is her first major motion picture, and I don’t know how she puts in a performance as strong as this one. Thomas Anderson takes this musician and turns her into a movie star.

There are two scenes with Haim that stick out among the rest. The first hits on a physical level. Gary is trying to coach her on how to sell a waterbed over the phone. He is telling her to be sexier. After some consternation, Alana dives into the deep end, puts her legs on the table (in a shot very similar to The Graduate (1967)) and turns up the heat to eleven. She is staring at Gary while she is doing it, and she is enjoying showing him off and also subconsciously, she loves making him squirm that way.

The second scene where Alana Haim shows off her stuff is with the casting agent right after she acts all sexy on the phone. Gary, using his acting life connections, gets Alana a seat in front of Mary Grady (Harriet Samson Harris). Alana, taking Gary’s advice, is saying yes to to everything. Grady is talking about Alana’s look and her Jewish tendencies, but the only thing that truly irks Gary from the third chair is when Alana said she would do nudity. It is one of the moments where Gary doesn’t want to share Alana with the world; he loves her and finds her attractive, and this was a step too far for him. Alana is confused because she followed his advice, but now he is backtracking. This leads to a remarkably funny scene where Alana shows Gary her boobs just to appease him. He then asks if he can touch them, and she slaps him across the face. It was a fast scene, but a hilarious one. What I love about Thomas Anderson’s script is that after this moment of presumed intimacy with sharing nudity, nothing much changes between Alana and Gary. They go back to what they were doing. It is a modern, acceptable nonchalant approach to nudity and what it can mean for a friendship. You are able to put that vulnerability of nudity in the past and accept what it was and not over pursue it. God knows i have made that mistake back when I was in high school, but Gary is a smarter man than I at that age. He was able to hide what he wanted and just accept the friendship. He embraced the friend zone for the time being, which was the mature thing to do.

Heading into Licorice Pizza, the one thing I was told to expect were some crazy side characters that would leave an indelible mark. Much like how Wes Anderson can pull anyone he wants for small parts due to his prestige, the same may be said for Paul Thomas Anderson. in Licorice Pizza, the audience is blessed with two short stints from Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper. The Sean Penn portrayal of Jack Holden is good and all, and very important to the story of Alana and Gary. She is trying to branch out, make Gary jealous, and Jack is her vessel. Unfortunately it doesn’t work out that well.

Then there is Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters. This performance is a fastball. It is the opposite of who he was as Jackson Maine in A Star Is Born (2018); Peters is egotistical, primmed and proper, and obsessed with the tangible things, but all of that is not important. What is essential viewing is how he talks with Alana and Gary in the movie. For some odd reason. one that I can not fully comprehend, this over-the-top showman of Hollywood acting all over-macho works within Licorice Pizza like a charm.

Just speaking on Cooper and his agree over the last five years…it has bene a fruitful one. He voiced Raccoon in the Marvel adventures dating back to 2017 with the poorly received sequel The Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) and then followed it up with Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers:n Endgame (2019). In between his voice work he created an Oscar-worthy film with A Star Is Born, and has since been part of two Best Picture nominees in Licorice Pizza and Nightmare Alley (2021). The only possible misgiving is The Mule (2018), but if you remember that movie got a lot of buzz around it because Clint Eastwood had a threesome in it. *Insert Shrug Emoji*

Paul Thomas Anderson not only created a great screenplay, but he also shot a beautiful movie. The colors and setting in Licorice Pizza are perfectly set for its era. And thinking about it even further, I should have put Licorice Pizza in the Best Costume Design in my own Oscar nominations because everything worn fits the ethos of the story. Getting back to the visual aspect though, there is one shot in Licorice Pizza that had my ogling the screen like a kid in a candy store with an unlimited quarter count.

Everything involving this yellow wall scene near the end of the movie is remarkable. The lighting, the shadows, even the dialogue between Alana and Brian (Nate Hamm); it all works so fucking well. Then at the end of this conversation, Alana is cast in all shadow, and the only light in the shot is the yellow wall behind her. She is framed as if she is deep throat in All The President’s Men (1976). It stopped me in my tracks.

Licorice Pizza was nominated for three Academy Awards, but it did not win any this past Sunday. I would have personally given it the award for Best Original Screenplay, but instead that award went to Belfast (2021). It was also up for Best Picture and Best Directing.

Whatever awards Paul Thomas Anderson and his entire crew earned as the build up to the Oscars was and still is warranted. This is a movie with heart. There is something for everyone to relate to. Who here has not “accidentally” bumped knees with with someone to see what the reaction would be. Who else hasn’t tried to make another person jealous but instead acted the major fool. Licorice Pizza is one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s best, for he simply doesn’t seem to miss.

STANKO RATING: A- (4.5/5 Stars)

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