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Licorice Pizza review – Paul Thomas Anderson’s flawless kaleidoscope of young love

The writer-director returns to '70s California for this personal and hilarious masterpiece, hinged on two sublime lead performances

After a detour to a London dominated by the House of Woodcock, Paul Thomas Anderson returns to his favourite setting of ‘70s California with Licorice Pizza for perhaps his most personal film yet, based on the childhood stories of his friend Gary Goetzman and starring two first-time young actors he's known personally for years. The result is pure magic. This is a beautiful, kaleidoscopic, and downright hilarious tale of young love and ambition, ridiculous and sublime, leaving you grinning from ear to ear from start to finish.

Goetzman’s alias here is Gary Valentine (played by Cooper Hoffman, son of the late and very great Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 15 year old child actor who’s just about to age out of his profession. At a school photo day, he’s entranced by the photographer’s assistant, the 25 year old Alana Kane (Alana Haim, one of the three sisters that make up the band Haim) and, in a moment of wild but charming overconfidence, invites her out on a date that, despite her better judgement, she agrees to. Thus begins a delightful relationship, part romantic, part just a very close friendship, part business partnership.

Gary is a natural hustler. As soon as the acting work dries up, he starts a new chapter as an entrepreneur, selling water beds and pinball machines, all made possible by the fact that Alana can drive him around. With the major age gap, their relationship could have hit a discomforting, sour note, but Anderson keeps the power balance between them in check with a masterful hand, and Hoffman and Haim have such an electrifying chemistry that this – often just platonic – connection is utterly irresistible.

Both of the young leads are phenomenal. Haim is magnificent in her portrayal of quarter-life-crisis insecurity and anxiety, while Hoffman has inherited his dad’s superhuman charisma – you can’t take your eyes off him even when he’s sharing the screen with the likes of Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper. Though Licorice Pizza is always all about Gary and Alana, it has the wonderful habit of their loose, shaggy-dog love story dipping in and out of the stories of others – stories we see just glimpses of but are so well-written that they feel like they could easily fill out entire films of their own.

Cooper has an absolute blast as horny, coked-up producer Jon Peters who has Gary and Alana deliver him a waterbed, while Penn gives his best performance in a decade as actor Jack Holden. A scene in which Holden drunkenly attempts to recreate a stunt from one of his old movies under the guidance of equally hammered director Rex Blau (Tom Waits, superb) ranks as quite possibly the funniest of the entire year, and serves as a powerful reminder of just how gifted a comic actor Penn is when given the right material. As always, Anderson’s supporting casting is perfection, every little role brought to life by just the right faces and performances.

Licorice Pizza rivals Inherent Vice for the title of Anderson’s funniest film, and certainly has 2021’s best dialogue, able to turn on a dime from hilarious to heartfelt to an intoxicating mix of the two. A melancholic dinner date between Alana and mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie in a show-stealing turn) has a simply stunning mix of laughs and pathos, and scenes like this can be found everywhere. To match this script, Anderson packs his film full of visual delights too. The use of film – catch this on a 70mm presentation if possible – gives a wonderful warm glow, both in the sweltering days and languorous nights, whilst some of the set-pieces here rival There Will Be Blood for the most ambitious Anderson has ever attempted.

Anderson uses a lot of long, mobile takes that are hugely technically impressive without ever feeling show-off-y, immersing us in the geography of every location, from Gary and Alana’s slowly expanding storefront to the winding Hollywood hills, and the enrapturing atmosphere is completed by a litany of killer needle drops. If there is a criticism to be made of Licorice Pizza, it’s that Jonny Greenwood’s score gets a little lost behind the licensed soundtrack, but the songs chosen are so joyous that it’s not a huge problem (we’ve also already had some of Greenwood’s most extraordinary work this year in Spencer, so it doesn’t feel like we’ve been too deprived).

Given his staggeringly good track record, Anderson is one of the most difficult filmmakers to pick favourites with, but Licorice Pizza is up there with his very best two or three pieces. It’s a jaw-droppingly funny and rich delight that both further cements him as the most reliably brilliant English-language filmmaker working today and must surely spell the beginning of two meteoric movie-star careers for Hoffman and Haim.

Licorice Pizza will be released on 7 January 2022.

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