Writer/director Anderson once again turns to Los Angeles of the 1970s for his latest concoction, although Licorice Pizza, a quirky romance set in 1973, is far more enjoyable than Boogie Nights and far more accessible than Inherent Vice. And it feels like Anderson's most personal work, a labor of love in the best sense of the word.
The film marks the big screen debuts of Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who starred in several past Anderson projects, and Alana Haim, one of the three sisters who make up the band Haim, for whom Anderson has directed several music videos. Hoffman plays Gary Valentine, a San Fernando Valley high schooler who is gifted with preternatural self-confidence. One day at school, while waiting to get his yearbook photo taken, he chats up Alana Kane (Haim), one of the photographer's adult assistants. It's love at first sight – Gary knows it, we know it, and Alana knows it but pretends she doesn't.
The problem is, Gary's 15 or 16, and Alana's 25 – at least. (At one point in the film, she says she's 28 before correcting herself; Haim herself was 28 during production.) It's a pronounced age difference, to be sure, and puritans may frown upon this highly inappropriate romance. But these star-crossed lovers are quite aware of the boundaries they must maintain, so much of Licorice Pizza consists of the two negotiating around their unconsummated relationship. It helps that Alana is extremely immature: she dresses like a teenager, still lives with her parents and sisters (played by Haim's actual family), and has no direction in life. Try as she might to leave Gary behind and join her fellow grownups, every adult she encounters seems whacked-out and aloof, like an alien species. It's no wonder she keeps going back to the ever-optimistic Gary, who is more precocious than mature: a born huckster, he pursues and abandons one scheme after another. He also openly adores her, a go-to balm for her lost-soul ego.
Anderson's films can't help but be weird, and Licorice Pizza – while the title alludes to a 1970s record store chain that doesn't appear in the movie, Anderson has stated that the two foodstuffs define his own youth – delights in the oddball characters that flit in and out of Gary's and Alana's orbit: real life Angelenos like hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and closeted gay city councilman Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), slightly fictionalized versions of actors William Holden (here called "Jack Holden" and played by Sean Penn) and Lucille Ball (rechristened "Lucy Doolittle" and played by Christine Ebersole), and even more obscure yo-yos from L.A. history. Many of Gary's adventures copy those of Gary Goetzman, the onetime child actor who became Tom Hanks's producing partner. For such a breezy rom-com, Licorice Pizza contains a wealth of deep references.
I greatly enjoyed Licorice Pizza. Hoffman and Haim are not traditionally attractive young people, but they have enormous charm, Haim in particular. And Anderson does lots of things right that other filmmakers do wrong: his vision of 1973 is accurate to the smallest detail; you won't find any actors sporting period-incorrect hair gel or five o'clock shadow here. The film even looks like it was shot in the '70s, although Anderson's camera glides and tracks in its own distinct fashion.
Is the movie profound? Not really. But it's sweet, funny, and thoroughly entertaining. Perhaps this is due to my own fondness for the Los Angeles of the past, but I honestly didn't want it to end.