Friday, February 4, 2022

Taking a Bite Out of “Licorice Pizza”

In the course of Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, it takes a brisk one hour and forty-five minutes for a Scottish general to be goaded into murder, be crowned king, lose his wife and his wits, and finally die dramatically in a bloody duel. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza requires 30 minutes longer for two ambitious but misdirected Valley kids to discover they’re in love. I by no means disdain stories on trivial subjects:  films that take a close-up look at intimate relationships are some of my favorites. (See, for one classic example, Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann’s unforgettable Marty.) But though Licorice Pizza has two fascinating central characters, as well as a dead-on look at the San Fernando Valley circa 1973, its meandering structure gives its story little sense of urgency. By the end I was stealing glances at my watch, wondering when this saga would finally grind toward its conclusion.

 Licorice Pizza (named after a now-defunct Southern California record shop chain) follows fifteen-year-old Gary Valentine--a self-promoter who is by turns an actor, a waterbed salesman, a pinball magnate, and an all-around hustler—in his conquest of an “older woman,” the elusive Alana Kane. She by turns ignores Gary, teases Gary, works for Gary, rescues Gary, and finally acknowledges that theirs is a bond that can’t be broken. The two are played by cinema newcomers who share distinctive heritage: he’s the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and she is part of a trio of singing Haims whom Anderson previously directed in a series of music videos. (The entire Haim family appears on-screen in one dinner scene.) Both are complex and quirky, and I fully appreciate the fact that they appear au naturel, zits and all.

 Otherwise, what plot the film has is stuffed full of in-jokes, many related to the movie industry. John Michael Higgins plays an obnoxious restaurant entrepreneur with serial Japanese wives. I don’t know exactly what he represents in terms of Hollywood movie culture, but there’s no question that Sean Penn’s Jack Holden is a caricatured view of the ageing William Holden, hitting on girls young enough to be his granddaughters. The male lead character, Gary Valentine, is apparently based on a successful Hollywood type, Gary Goetzman, who went from being a child actor (and waterbed salesman) to a major career as a producer of hit films and television shows. And Bradley Cooper’s Jon Peters, who makes the mistake of buying one of Gary’s waterbeds for himself and main squeeze Barbra Streisand, is vividly portrayed as a larger-than-life blowhard chock full of his own sense of entitlement.

 For me the film’s biggest surprise comes when the script dips into the world of local politics, portraying Alana as a devoted volunteer for Valley councilman Joel Wachs in his bid to be mayor of Los Angeles. As someone who remembers the glory days of the real Wachs (he’s played here by Uncut Gems director Benny Safdie), I was surprised to see him portrayed on screen, with particular attention paid to his character flaws and his covert homosexuality. Wachs’ story is a potentially provocative one, but much less so if you don’t have a long memory of his political heyday. For those who could care less about decades-old mayoral contests in Southern California, what is this naming of real names supposed to prove?

 If you strip away the cameos, Licorice Pizza is an eccentric version of the classic formula: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. It has its charming moments, but I’m still not sure why Hollywood critics are hopelessly devoted.




  1. Hi Beverly, Hope all is good with you and those you love. Thanks for he review, I’ll rewatch Mr. Borgnine be Marty again, timeless. I also hope Phillip’s son can come close to his dad, who I miss terribly. Bob.

  2. I too have always been saddened by the loss of the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman. His young son is apparently quite a character, in the film and in real life. Let's hope he has a long career and a well-balanced life.

  3. Thank you for both responses, every time you write something about film I learn valuable information. I too hope Phillip’s son has a well-balanced life, especially because of his father’s multiple struggles and ultimate defeat.