Licorice Pizza has been nominated for three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay). It’s been honored by several other groups, and has been hailed as a refreshing departure from director Paul Thomas Anderson, director of Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, and Inherent Vice, among others. It’s sunny, colorful, and something of a glorious mess. One’s enjoyment of it will depend on one’s response to “glorious” or “mess.” There’s also an awkward element at the heart of it that can be like a squeeze of lemon juice in one’s morning coffee.
This certainly feels different from PTA’s previous work. He is bringing back the ‘70s in California with a vengeance; the production design and costumes bring us back to another world, and the direction and acting shout of a time when everything seemed possible—even this crazy “romance” at the heart of the film. The camerawork includes breathtaking tracking shots down road filled with period cars, shops, and clothes. Many of those shots are of one or more of our two leads running almost as much as Franka Potente in Lola rennt. (Many a film paper will likely be produced on the meaning of running in the film.) There is an almost dizzying excitement created here that occasionally spins off the rails into parody; some have found this delightful….
Aside from the sense of time and place so beautifully recreated here, the two leads are extraordinary, especially considering that this is their first film. Alana Haim is the more experienced performer, as a member of the band Haim with her sisters Este and Danielle. She’s a complete natural, and steps into a challenging role with so much ease that it doesn’t look like acting. Cooper Hoffman, son of acting legend Philip Seymour Hoffman (who had a long history with PTA), plays her friend/boyfriend/who knows? and has an equally challenging role as a 15-year-old. ( Alana Heim was actually 28 at the time of filming, and Hoffman was 17.)
Their unusual relationship is credible because the characters work, the actors are wonderful, and the context of California in the 70s is presented as either an “anything goes” time or a time of infinite possibilities, depending on how you want to read the relationship. It’s comically and rightly won the Alliance of Women Film Journalists EDA Special Mention Award for “Most Egregious Age Difference Between the Leading Man and the Love Interest.” I would have flipped that and talked about the age difference between the Leading Lady and her love interest, as she is supposed to be the more mature one. But here is where the uncomfortable magic of the film is. Newcomer Haim is entirely believable as a mid-twentysomething who finds a connection with a 15-year-old. Newcomer Hoffman plays a believable young man whose intellect and experiences have given him an aura of maturity, but who is still often a teenage jerk underneath. The relationship borders on smarmy here and there, but fortunately doesn’t do anything more but put its toe in those waters. I can’t think of another relationship like it in a film, and tobe honest, I hope to not see that again anytime soon.
The film also features supporting performances from Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Christine Ebersole, Tom Waits, John C. Reilly, John Michael Higgins, and PTA’s life partner Maya Rudolph. Bradley is getting all the attention for an over-the-top portrayal of hairdresser/producer/old boyfriend of Barbra Streisand. It’s good for a lot of laughs, and Bradley gives it everything he has, but it takes the film from its barely believable portrayal of a near-impossible relationship and sends it into camp. That also applies to the smaller performances of the others mentioned here, with the exception of Rudolph, whose short time on screen is now my favorite of her work on film.
The film, however, lives or dies on its central relationship. It’s awkward, it’s nothing a sane person would recommend, and the film gets away with it. Part of that is because of the back-and-forth nature of the two leads, being mature one minute, then with pulling away (Haim’s character) or acting like an immature adolescent (Cooper’s character) the next. That makes it believable. The whole thing is a high-wire act that the film, though just barely, gets away with.
Perhaps what will keep this film being remembered is that it launched the acting careers of a young man and woman with great talent. It’s to be hoped that the two leads will go on to other wonderful work. But if this ends up being the only film they end up acting in, it’s worth one’s time just enjoying them here.