California’s century-old experiment with the ballot initiative has indeed been a spectacle of turbulence and contention.
The genesis of Licorice Pizza, the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson, can probably be found in Donna Rose, Anderson’s art teacher when he was in grade school. In an interview with the New York Times, Anderson described Rose this way: “I went to a school with white-haired ladies who were rough, and there was this lady with long, beautiful, wavy brown hair….I was in love with her as a young boy, absolutely smitten. She sang songs in class, and she was the exact opposite of every other teacher.”
Rose is the mother of Alana Haim, the star of Licorice Pizza. Anderson’s crush on Rose as a boy explains the plot. It’s 1973 in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. While at school one day, marginally successful teen actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) spots Alana Kane (Alana Haim), who works for a company that takes high school yearbook photos. Valentine is fifteen, Kane twenty-five. Valentine, a natural hustler and sweet businessman who always sees a chance to make a buck, sees Alana and falls in love. Alana is extremely circumspect, but not completely disinterested. The two banter then go to dinner together.
Gary and Alana form a bond, although it takes the entire film for them to let it advance to a romantic stage, and that only happens in the last scene. Their street-smart guile sets Gary and Alana apart from the adult world, which is depicted in Licorice Pizza as incompetent, predatory, and corrupt. Lucy Doolittle (Christine Ebersole), an actress based on Lucille Ball, is a ranting alcoholic who attacks Gary backstage after he had hit her with a pillow during a skit. Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), who is dating Barbara Streisand and who threatens Gary’s little brother, is just shy of being a full Charles Manson. Jack Holden (Sean Penn, in reality playing William Holden) is an aging actor who hits on Alana and doesn’t think twice about endangering her life by demanding she ride on the back of his motorcycle doing a stunt. Restaurateur Jack Flick (John Michael Higgins) actually talks to his Japanese wives (he seems to have a new one in every scene) with a thick, offensive Asian accent. In other words, this is 1970s America, where the kids were savvier than the clueless and crude elders. Gary, a “little hustler,” is brilliant at sensing a money-making opportunity, whether taking over ownership of a waterbed store or opening a pinball arcade just days after pinball was made legal. Yes, from 1939 to 1974 playing pinball was illegal in California.
The exception to the sinful world of adults in Licorice Pizza is Alana’s father, a strong and pious Jewish man played by Moti Haim, the real-life father of Alana Haim. Moti is not in the film much, but he should be. In one scene Alana, her two sisters Danielle (Danielle Haim) and Este (Este Haim), and her parents (Moti and Donna Haim) take their seats for some challah and wine. Alana’s new actor boyfriend Lance (Skyler Gisondo) declines to say the hamotzi, a Jewish prayer before eating. “I respectfully refuse,” Lance, who is—was—Jewish himself, tells Moti. “My personal path has led me to atheism.” Alana blows up at this, escorting Lance outside, blasting him for disrespect, and breaking up with him on the spot.
Anderson is fantastic at capturing the tight quarters of a lot of families in the 1970s, who often had a lot of kids crammed into small spaces. After her date implodes, an overwrought Alana marches around the house challenging her sisters on what she is positive are their preconceptions about her. It’s a funny scene, and one that reveals that while the world outside might be crazy, Alana’s family is a center of tradition, love, and moral accountability. Later in the film, when Alana returns home after getting stoned and wearing a bikini to try and sell waterbeds with Gary, Moti looks up from the TV exclaims “What the [expletive],” and relentlessly bangs on her door as she passes out. Although barely in the film, Moti is not an absent parent. His influence will help Alana survive a harrowing encounter later in the film, during an escape sequence that is also the film’s best scene.
There’s no real plot to Licorice Pizza, a picaresque story that is like a G-Rated version of Boogie Nights, another Anderson film. The majority of scenes involve Gary and Alana getting into predicaments that involve weird, irresponsible, or flaked-out California adults. It might seem a little unbelievable that Gary, just shy of sixteen, can successfully launch businesses from waterbeds to a pinball gallery, but Anderson is not far off the mark here. The 1970s was an era when parents were often absent and kids were treated like small adults. Underage girls could hang out with rock stars—David Bowie and other musicians had groupies that were the same age as Gary—and most kids had summer jobs and even made attempts at their own small businesses. The profane, smoking little leaguers in the 1976 film The Bad News Bears strike modern audiences as scandalous now, but it’s what American childhood was like, at least in California, fifty years ago.
Although it’s easy to criticize the parenting of the 1970s, kids back then did have peer groups that helped usher kids into adulthood. Licorice Pizza is great at dramatizing how kids of the era could get themselves into wild and dangerous predicaments, but also rely on their friends to get them out. At one point Gary is falsely arrested due to mistaken identity. Cell phones being more than a decade away, he’s left to have faith in Alana following him to the precinct to try to bail him out. They are entirely on their own. Nobody would want to forgo today’s technology, which has revolutionized the ability to keep kids safe, but in many ways, the kids of the disco era developed cunning, toughness, and street smarts that prepared them well for life.
Anderson also beautifully conveys Gary’s longing and never lets the story get too sexual. In one of the film’s best sequences, Alana falls off a motorcycle driven by Jack Holden. After rushing to her aid, Gary takes Alana back to the waterbed store. To the sensual beat of Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It,” Alana sleeps, her body illuminated by a magical aqua glow. Gary, lying next to her and terrified, slowly reaches for her in a sexual way—then, catching himself, holds her hand. “Don’t be creepy, please,” Alana tells Gary over and over. When Gary needs someone to chaperone him for a TV appearance in New York, Alana flies across the country with him. The two frequently show jealousy about the other.
So Licorice Pizza is indeed a romance, despite the fact that many movie reviewers, most of them liberals who love darker Anderson films like There Will Be Blood and The Master, have denied it, because to do so would be to condone the age difference between the two characters.
The tension between Gary and Alana provides most of the film’s suspense, but getting to its ultimate resolution extends the movie too long and mars the ending. In Licorice Pizza’s most exhilarating sequence, Alana has to save Gary and his brothers from an encounter with a psychotic showbiz creep named Jon Peters (a scene-stealing and devouring Bradley Cooper). Alana has to steer a large truck that’s out of gas down a twisting hill in Hollywood (yes running out of gas was common in 1974). When leisure-suit sleaze bag Peters hits on Alana, he is stopped when the subject of Alana’s father comes up. Even though he’s back at home, Moti is watching out for his girl. The harrowing experience with the runaway truck leaves Alana stunned on the sidewalk, realizing that maybe she should not be hanging out with young teenagers. She decides to go into politics, telling Gary that she needs direction and wants to get on with her life.
This is a perfect spot for Licorice Pizza to end. Gary, brokenhearted yet wiser from a love that never could have gone all the way, would return to school; Alana to a volunteer spot on the Los Angeles mayoral campaign of Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). Instead, Licorice Pizza drags on for another twenty minutes. Alana ultimately becomes disillusioned with the compromise and duplicity of politics—in other words, the kind of things that often come with adulthood—and leaves her job to literally run back to Gary. It’s an unrealistic and even creepy ending to what could have been a brilliant film. I’m not sure what Alana’s expecting when she brings Gary home, but there’s no way Moti would approve.