Refuting the adage that you can’t go home again, Paul Thomas Anderson thrillingly revisits the San Fernando Valley of his youth—as well as the high-flying electricity of his 1997 sophomore epic Boogie Nights—with Licorice Pizza, a coming-of-age celebration of figuring out who you are, where you want to be, what direction you want to head, and what riotous, go-for-broke inventiveness will help you achieve your dreams. The most purely optimistic film Anderson has made since 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, with which it shares an unruly romanticism that’s rocked by bursts of anger, not to mention a shaggy odyssey in the vein of 2014’s Inherent Vice, it’s a nostalgia trip steeped in a ’70s spirit of reckless abandon and an abiding affection for that moment in time when anything seems possible, and the wide-open road ahead is something toward which one furiously races.
Licorice Pizza (Nov. 26, in theaters) is awash in sights of young men and women running at breakneck speed, none more wildly than 15-year-old high schooler Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, an Anderson favorite) and 25-year-old photographer’s assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the band Haim). The two initially meet at the former’s class picture day, during which Gary comes on to Alana with a measure of cocky bravado that far exceeds his worldly experience. Gary brags about his career as a child actor, and it’s clear that his professional success is due to his self-assurance rather than the other way around. Alana is also confident and tough-as-nails—she’s introduced cursing at a kid who accidentally walks into her, and spends the rest of the film exuding a profane and imposing personality that’s epitomized by her knowledge of Krav Maga—and she promptly lets Gary know that she’s far too old for him. Nonetheless, she recognizes the pushy kid as a kindred spirit and accepts his invitation for a drink at a nearby restaurant, thereby swiftly cementing their bond.
Anderson was only a kid during the 1970s depicted in Licorice Pizza, and he envisions Encino’s school corridors, ramshackle offices and storefronts, and neighborhood streets and homes with the warm regard of someone conjuring an era through the rose-tinted haze of childhood recollections (the fondness he exhibits for old-school Hollywood, meanwhile, is reminiscent of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). Anderson and co-cinematographer Michael Bauman’s images—be they close-ups of Hoffman’s lightly pimpled face, or a panorama of a crowd taking to a brightly lit golf course at night—have a soft, grainy texture that further enhances the proceedings’ tender atmosphere, as does regular collaborator Jonny Greenwood’s score, which swings and sways in tune with soundtrack cuts from the likes of Sonny and Cher, David Bowie, and The Doors. The film feels like a memory piece, radiating compassion and consideration for individuals frantically trying to chase down whatever next big thing they think will get them what they desire.
For Alana, that means finding a way out of her showbiz-steeped hometown and away from her traditional Jewish family (played by Haim’s real-life father, mother, and sisters, the last of whom are also her bandmates). In Gary, Alana not only sees herself, but a potential one-way ticket to somewhere better. Since her wannabe-paramour isn’t even of legal age to drink or drive, though, she quickly moves on to others, including Gary’s kid-thespian rival Lance (Skyler Gisondo), movie star Jack Holden (Sean Penn), and mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). When each of them doesn’t pan out, she ping-pongs back to Gary, whose outsized plans are a perfect fit for her own semi-defined ambitions.
Licorice Pizza is a story about two freewheeling hucksters in love, with Alana determined to snag a man or a job that’ll facilitate her flight, and Gary driven to strike it rich by hook or by crook. First with a waterbed business, and then as a pinball arcade magnate, Gary proves an intrepid entrepreneur whose guiding ethos is embodied by a James Bond marquee (Live and Let Die), and he falls for Alana precisely because they’re two of a mad kind. That similarity both attracts and repels, and it’s to Haim and Hoffman’s credit that they manage the sparks that unite Alana and Gary, and the frustration and anger that frequently splits them apart. They share an unaffected, magnetic chemistry, expressing a deft mixture of bluster, ferocity, jealousy, stubbornness and vulnerability as their protagonists sprint headlong into one misadventure after another.
Haim and Hoffman are the endearing centers of Licorice Pizza, and Anderson surrounds them with a cavalcade of scene-stealing luminaries. Penn is more amusing than he’s been in years as Holden (a riff on William Holden), who winds up caring less about Alana than about recreating a motorcycle stunt from one of his famous roles with the aid of director Rex Blau (Tom Waits). John Michael Higgins gets a couple of laughs as a clownishly racist Japanese restaurant proprietor. And Bradley Cooper is a hilariously sleazy delight as real-life movie producer Jon Peters, who purchases one of Gary’s waterbeds and, upon delivery, delivers an extended, coked-up rant to Gary in which he clarifies the proper pronunciation of his girlfriend’s name (Barbra Strei-sand) and threatens to murder Gary’s younger brother with his bare hands.
The 1973 oil crisis is the catalyst for an unhinged Peters’ gas station freak-out, as well as what may be the most suspenseful running-on-empty, rolling-downhill car sequence in cinema history. Those, however, are just two of the numerous highlights of Anderson’s rambunctious drama, which shifts gears with aplomb. Its every extended tracking shot is perfectly integrated into the action proper (the best being at a local convention featuring a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him John C. Reilly cameo as The Munsters’ paterfamilias), and its every segue into slow-motion and needle drop is attuned to its characters’ volatile emotions and circumstances. Anderson hasn’t played this fast and loose since his earliest films, and yet unlike those efforts, there are no look-at-me flourishes to be found here, only the effusive enthusiasm of a master in total command of his material’s rhythm, energy, and mood.
Gary and Alana dash toward the future with heedless excitement and a bit of fear, the latter born from their shared understanding that they may only have a finite number of chances to truly forge a connection with each other. Their tumultuous blend of hope and dread, of unbridled boldness and nagging insecurity, is the stuff that young love is made of, and it’s imagined in such precise, personal terms by Anderson, Haim and Hoffman that, by Licorice Pizza’s conclusion, it comes to feel exhilaratingly universal.