Acclaimed writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson gets nostalgic in his latest feature Licorice Pizza, set in 1970s San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles where he grew up. The hangout romantic comedy follows confident teen-actor Gary (Cooper Hoffman) and 20-something photographer’s assistant Alana (Alana Haim) after they cross paths on high school picture day. After some unrequited flirtation, the pair strike up a friendship and begin an entrepreneurial partnership selling waterbeds.
Shot on 35mm through a grainy, rose-tinted lens, Anderson leans into his influences to present a beautifully textured picture that’s made with the fervent passion of a film fan. With the meandering rhythm of Dazed and Confused or American Graffiti, and the likes of Bowie and The Doors turning up on a supercool soundtrack, it’s a joy to spend time in the unworried, unhurried atmosphere he crafts. The story itself is based on his friend’s own experience, so it develops authentically without the usual cliché of the coming-of-age genre.
Reflective of our teenage years themselves, the narrative is weird and phasey, flitting from one big idea to the next and moving off onto various tangents. This allows for some interesting cameos as Sean Penn and Tom Waits take centre stage for a creepy restaurant sequence, then Bradley Cooper chews the scenery as highly strung movie producer Jon Peters in a bizarre, yet undeniably entertaining middle section. The film is at its best when it focuses its relaxed energy on the leads, their witty dialogue fizzing like pop rocks as their infectious personalities bounce off each other.
Fitting with the chilled tone of the piece, the cast is largely made up of friends of the filmmaker. Cooper Hoffman is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a regular collaborator of Anderson’s. Alana Haim, one third of pop-rock trio Haim, appears alongside her whole family, connected with the director from his work on their music videos. Others in the ensemble include Anderson’s wife Maya Rudolph and their kids, as well as long-time peer John C. Reilly. This close-knit approach off-screen provides genuine warmth to the film, and benefits the naturalism in the wonderful performances from the leads in their debut roles.
A sweet and sweaty tribute to aimless adolescence, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza serves up a satisfying slice of 70s nostalgia and introduces two future stars of cinema to our screens.