As characters, Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) are about as opposite as they come. One is a 25-year-old wandering through dead-end jobs and hoping for (but skeptical of) a way out of her life in 1973 Encino, the other a 15-year-old child actor with teenage precociousness and ambitions bigger than the city he’s known his entire life, looking for a purpose to anchor his buoyant, ultra-optimistic dreams back down to Earth.
Their meeting is a pivotal point in both their lives and the essence of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s eternally sunny “Licorice Pizza.” At Gary’s high school picture day, Alana works as a photographer’s assistant, and they unexpectedly encounter one another. She offers him a comb and a mirror; he raises by offering her a date, and the chase is on. The film’s next two hours is less about the various hijinks and historical events which its stars seem to endlessly (and literally) run around and more about the actualization that their frenetic relationship brings to life. For the first time in their lives, Alana and Gary are seen for who they truly are.
Not only is “Licorice Pizza” — Anderson’s fast, loose ode to growing up in the San Fernando Valley — his first proper coming-of-age film, it’s also the director’s sweetest offering since “Punch-Drunk Love” swept audiences off their feet almost 20 years ago. Brilliant from scene to scene, it’s an often-hilarious, almost-always electric rush of both ‘70s nostalgia and youthful charm, as its central characters navigate a collision course connection on their path to discovering the realest versions of themselves.
It’s notable to mention that this is the feature debut of both Alana Haim (of pop-rock band HAIM fame) and Cooper Hoffman (the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). Without that distinction, their newcomer status is imperceptible. Both stars bounce off one another with the rhythm, charisma and chemistry of the best classic screwball comedies. Haim in particular is a revelation — as Alana Kane, she joins the ranks of top-tier performances in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. That Anderson wrote this part specifically with her in mind is one of the year’s best surprises, only topped by the fact that she embodies the role so well.
Alana and Gary’s evolving relationship surely has a romantic side to its nature, but “Licorice Pizza” wisely veers away from the explicit in favor of something much more chaste and tender. Their constant competition — starting businesses, chasing stardom and other people, all while further escalating the charade that they don’t care about each other — results in a string of episodes that could be considered the “plot” of this movie. It plays out at a running pace, gleefully unconcerned with reaching any concrete destination but full of bliss by the time it finally arrives at the end.
These vignettes, which span families meeting significant others, sudden police arrests, various celebrity run-ins and an oil crisis, throw the characters of “Licorice Pizza” into situations that consistently mine comedic gold. Anderson packs the film tight with talent, enlisting the help of veteran stars including the likes of Tom Waits, Sean Penn and Harriet Sansom Harris, to produce on-screen incidents with Haim and Hoffman that can’t help but produce cinematic dynamite. Anderson’s ace in the hole? A ridiculously watchable Bradley Cooper on a coked-up bender in every scene as the fictionalized version of Jon Peters, the actual hairdresser-turned music producer-turned boyfriend of Barbra Streisand.
Sprinkle in some of the most iconic needle-drops of the year from a soundtrack featuring Nina Simone, the Doors, Paul McCartney and more, and you’ve got the makings for one of the most memorable, enjoyable films out in theaters today. Paul Thomas Anderson’s frenetic “Licorice Pizza” is joyous, nostalgic and as fun as the best of them — a seemingly spontaneous mix of things that you’d never expect to go together that, once united, are impossible to keep apart.