Though some LA natives might scoff at the thought of an entire movie surrounding life in the San Fernando Valley, Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest endeavor Licorice Pizza is a wonderfully nostalgic tribute to the culture that defined the SFV circa 1970.
Licorice Pizza demonstrates the same charm and frivolity audiences might recognize from Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love, but with an appealingly distinctive flair. Anderson’s relationship with the Valley is without a doubt a firmly embedded love affair, and the Academy Award winning director makes that very clear throughout the course of the film.
Set in the height of the 70s, Licorice Pizza takes the audience back to a time of waterbeds, pinball legalization, Cupid’s Hot Dogs and Barbara Streissand. Anderson’s eye for captivating set design paired with a perfectly curated soundtrack ties the whole film together, making for a period piece that truly emulates the spirit of the drug-fueled, Nixon-era boomer generation’s youth… or at least a romanticized version of it.
On the surface, Licorice Pizza might seem like your typical age-old high school rom-com; however it proves to be much more than that. School photographer Alana Kane and student Gary Valentine are caught in a dilemma that director Paul Thomas Anderson described as derivative of “old screwball comedies”. Gary, 15, spends the duration of the film seeking out a futile relationship with his friend Alana, 25. Although their drastic age gap could typically leave considerable room for error, Anderson manages to portray their relationship in an incredibly endearing and artful way.
Looking through a myopic lens at a statutory relationship such as Alana and Gary’s, the situation could seem off putting and inappropriate. However, Anderson’s understanding of romantic comedies and background in wacky, sometimes slightly unhinged love stories provides a lighthearted answer to the question of why he chose to leave such a surprising age difference between the two main characters. It’s less of a will-they-won’t-they, and more of a they won’t, so watching Gary pursue Alana is almost like a joke.
“There’s this sort-of insurmountable thing between two characters that keeps them apart,” director Paul Thomas Anderson told the PCC Courier, “and once you know that that’s the playing field, you can have fun with it, because you know they’re never going to be together. It’s a line you do not cross… so what’s fun is seeing Gary continue to try.”
Licorice Pizza features a murderers’ row of on-screen veterans such as Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn and John C. Reilly, as well as a handful of fresh faces. Debut actors Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman (the son of Anderson’s late colleague Phillip Seymour Hoffman), managed to establish their credibility in a major way through their performances. It should come as no surprise to find out that the foul-mouthed, fiercely passionate Alana Kane is largely influenced by the real-life Haim sister herself.
“Alana’s character is a shadow of the real Alana,” Anderson explained. “She has a very ferocious protectiveness of the people that she loves.”
Much of Licorice Pizza’s plot is actually parallel to experiences that Anderson has had throughout his teens in the SFV, even down to the name of Gary’s character, who is written based on one of Anderson’s friends. The 15 year old entrepreneurial high-schooler finds himself in a number of situations where the audience thinks he’s out of his depth, yet Gary always seems to pull through. Although the trope of overcoming unlikely obstacles is inherently specific to film, the real-life Valley Gary doesn’t seem a whole lot different from Gary Valentine.
“I suppose you could take this story and transplant it somewhere else but there’s something about the details… My friend Gary started a waterbed company. He had a pinball store. Pinball was illegal in LA, and then it wasn’t. All these details are specific to the San Fernando Valley… When all that stuff is added up it’s like, yeah, that kind of shit happens in the Valley all the time,” Anderson elaborated.
Licorice Pizza is chicken soup for the old soul. Without dragging on, the narrative flows seamlessly and the chemistry between the first-time leading actors is powerful. The film feels like a breath of fresh air if you’re used to watching Anderson’s more intense, starkly different films such as The Master and There Will Be Blood. Licorice Pizza is a testament to the fact that even the most seemingly average places can be special in the right moment with the right people.
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