Paul Thomas Anderson’s films aren’t where you’re going to find a wealth of sweet stories of young love. Instead, that’s where you’re more apt to run into raining frogs and an over-the-top Tom Cruise (“Magnolia”), a fearsome Daniel Day-Lewis drinking your milkshake (“There Will Be Blood”) or an unhinged Adam Sandler (“Punch-Drunk Love”).
Expectations are meant to be upended, however, and Anderson does so wonderfully with “Licorice Pizza” (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday in New York and LA, nationwide Dec. 25), his sun-drenched and splendid 1970s coming-of-age film – and arguably most mainstream project to date. The movie introduces two fabulous lead actors, Alana Haim (of the sister pop trio Haim) and Cooper Hoffman (son of late Hollywood legend Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose characters navigate awkward romance, colorful weirdos and various misadventures in California’s San Fernando Valley in an entertaining movie that, like “American Graffiti” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” before it, captures youth in hilarious and poignant ways.
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In Encino circa 1973, Gary Valentine (Hoffman) is a pimply faced 15-year-old waiting in line for his school picture when he hits on 25-year-old photographer’s assistant Alana Kane (Haim). They banter playfully, he’s enamored by her beauty and spirit, and despite their age difference, she’s entranced by this uncannily confident kid who also happens to be an up-and-coming child actor. “I met the girl I’m gonna marry,” Gary tells his little brother.
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The fact that Haim, 29, and Hoffman, 18, are not only outstanding but also relative unknowns helps “Pizza” immensely. Audiences get to watch these two blossom before our eyes, both are endlessly engaging and if there’s any justice, this is just the start for these talented newcomers.
Haim is a spitfire as Alana, a young woman trying to find her identity and what’s important in the world, even though Gary is this appealing Peter Pan personality who makes not growing up seem pretty enjoyable. And Hoffman has the same soulful quality as his dad, blending a boisterous charm with the roller-coaster of emotions that only comes from first love. Hormones run high amid the film’s teen-filled landscape, though Alana and Gary’s relationship is much more about the emotional than the physical.
Bradley Cooper is a force of nature, swooping in for an enjoyably bizarre turn looking like one of the Bee Gees, as polyester-clad producer/hairdresser Jon Peters (aka Barbra Streisand’s then-boyfriend). And Sean Penn gives gravelly voiced life to Jack Holden, a famous actor attracted to Alana who attempts to re-create a fiery war scene outside of a bar (with the help of a crazy old director played by Tom Waits). Family also plays an underlying theme: Haim’s real-life siblings and parents portray Alana’s loved ones, lesser-known relatives of film and TV legends pop up in supporting roles (be sure to check the credits for some recognizable last names); and even The Munsters find their way into the retro narrative.
Like almost every movie these days breaking a two-hour run time, the film drags in places and some tangential scenes don’t really add much to the plot, especially a pair of seriously cringeworthy sequences involving Gary and a white restauranteur (John Michael Higgins) who speaks with an offensive Japanese accent. It’s wildly out of place amid an otherwise endearing film. Anderson is better at weaving in politics without being heavy-handed and having some fun with the gas crisis while also exploring a deeper side of Alana.
With “Licorice Pizza,” Anderson delivers a warm tasty slice of adolescence as well as two fresh-faced youngsters that will satisfy cinephiles for years to come.