The Pitch: It’s a tale as old as time, though we see it in 1974 San Fernando Valley: Teenage boy Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour) meets disillusioned twentysomething girl Alana (Alana Haim — yes, of HAIM fame); boy and girl start dancing around each other’s orbit, clearly enraptured but afraid to say it; boy and girl start a waterbed business and take the Valley by storm.
The story goes from there, though in snakier and more complicated places than you’d expect. And all of it takes place amid the rock music, bell bottoms, and end-of-history attitude of Vietnam-era America, including gas shortages, the mayoral campaign of Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), and an out-of-control Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper).
Soggy Bottom: I’ve no idea where Paul Thomas Anderson got this reputation as a self-serious fuddy-duddy who only makes Art Films. Sure, his most recent works — There Will Be Blood, The Master, Phantom Thread — are ornate, elegantly-crafted character dramas, though not without their own threads of wry humor.
But Licorice Pizza (a reference to the now-dead SoCal record chain) sees Anderson back in the sunny, whirlwind modes of Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice, and, more specifically, Punch-Drunk Love, an easygoing lark that ekes out spoonfuls of romantic charm, even — or perhaps because — its leads just can’t stop emotionally hurting each other.
There are threads of Anderson’s typical love for Altman here, with its naturalistic rhythms and the grainy, period-appropriate cinematography (supervised by Anderson himself, alongside Michael Bauman), alongside more than a bit of Love Story. In fact, Erich Segal’s original novel is perched on a bookshelf in one shot, winking at us with its promise of young love. That said, Licorice Pizza doesn’t follow the usual trajectories of these kinds of coming-of-age tales, and it’s so much better for it.