Paul Thomas Anderson making the film he was always destined to make in Licorice Pizza. A breezy, rambling teenage romance, exploring the eccentricities of being a California kid in the 1970s. The film succeeds by the PTA screenplay and the two leading performances. Cooper Hoffman, son of PTA’s former collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman, is marvelous and the dynamic with Alana Haim is so alluring. Yet, the plot is nonexistent, making the character work crucial to falling in rhythm with the storytelling.
Thankfully, the entire cast gives idiosyncratic performances and subvert audience expectation in every manner. Bradley Cooper is batshit insane in his ten minutes of screentime. Wish he had more scenes in the film, honestly. Furthermore, Benny Safdie’s mini-story arc in the film carries the final act, while Sean Penn was also off losing his fucking mind. And lastly, the Haim sisters were all-natural actors, making the worldbuilding feel organic. In no shocking way, PTA gets great performances out of his cast, but unfortunately, it’s one of his weakest story structures and the narrative sometimes feels lost.
At points, it’s about the first waterbed investor and salesman in Southern California, and by the end, Gary Valentine runs a pinball empire. The script quickly runs through disjointed moments of Gary and Alana’s relationship. It reminds me of Punch-Drunk Love, where the plot is character-driven and oddly includes bizarre story beats that move the plot like a man with millions of airline miles off chocolate pudding giveaway. PTA has an affection for these types of people in the world.
The production design, costuming, and flashy soundtrack were excellent. The Michael Bauman cinematography has some of the warmest lighting in all of PTA’s filmography, matching the tone he was going for with Licorice Pizza. It will go down as one of PTA’s weaker entries for me, but don’t mistake that for me not liking the film. It still works on many levels and will undoubtedly improve on multiple viewings.