Alana Kane (played by Alana Haim), the wayward 25-year-old at the center of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Licorice Pizza, is very bored and a little broke. Stuck in odd jobs and still living with her family in the San Fernando Valley, Alana finds herself drawn to a fast-talking, hilariously self-possessed 15-year-old named Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a child actor bounding from one adventure to another in 1970s California, years before the invention of helicopter parenting. “Do you think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his friends all the time?” Alana asks her sister in the middle of the movie. Her relationship with Gary is not quite a romance, but it’s propelled by giddy flirtation, walking a hazy line of appropriateness. Then she replies to her own question with the obvious answer: “I think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends all the time.”
Throughout Anderson’s unpredictable and thrilling filmmaking career, “weird” has been something of a constant. Licorice Pizza is ostensibly named after a long-gone chain of record stores that dominated Southern California in Anderson’s boyhood, but it also suggests the incongruous flavor combo that the director has always specialized in as a storyteller, a mixture that might appear off-putting but ends up going down smooth. His last effort was 2017’s Phantom Thread, which was presented as a drama about a genius fashion designer, but spent most of its running time raucously depicting the protagonist’s sweet and sour romance with his newest muse. Licorice Pizza is an antic comedy about Alana and Gary tooling around the Valley, but it’s also a bittersweet reminiscence about how difficult embracing adulthood can be.
Alana, as she says, probably shouldn’t be hanging out with a bunch of 15-year-olds. But in the course of Anderson’s shaggy 133-minute yarn, she participates in various get-rich-quick schemes with Gary. She also bumps up against a number of questionable adults: booze-soaked actors, twitchy politicians, coked-up movie producers, and other such local celebrities. They’re all at least as buffoonish as Gary’s gang of teen friends, who march into restaurants and classily order soda on ice, as if they’re asking for a martini. Alana can’t quite figure out what to do with her future, so why not keep a tight hold on the youthful nostalgia Gary has to offer?
This mildly transgressive tension frames Licorice Pizza, a mostly plot-light film that veers from vignette to vignette, as though powered by Gary’s short attention span. More often than not, Alana rolls her eyes at her younger companion, but his charm lies in his firm adolescent conviction that he’s the most interesting person in the world. They meet when she takes his portrait at high-school-picture day; Gary, a born performer who has recently appeared in a family comedy film, flashes a boyish grin at Alana and persuades her to have dinner with him. Soon enough, she’s helping him deliver waterbeds around the county, the first of many fads that Gary hops onto in search of a quick buck.
The tales of Licorice Pizza are inspired by the early years of the Hollywood mainstay Gary Goetzman, a former child actor who appeared in the Lucille Ball comedy Yours, Mine and Ours (a film much like the one Gary’s part of), before eventually becoming a producer for the likes of Jonathan Demme and Tom Hanks. Some of the figures Alana and Gary meet are thinly disguised versions of real celebrities—Christine Ebersole plays a brassy take on Ball, while Sean Penn’s character is a bibulous actor named Jack Holden, who’s obviously modeled on William Holden. Others are explicitly identified, such as the L.A. mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) and the legendary raconteur/hairdresser Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), a mop-headed boyfriend to Barbra Streisand who went on to become a studio mogul.
Their desperation to hold on to the past is just as apparent as Alana’s, and far more pathetic. Holden subjects Alana to a grimly funny drunken dinner that ends with him trying to re-create the action stunts of his stardom; Peters rabidly barks about his legendary girlfriend as Gary and Alana try to fill up his new waterbed. Anderson takes each encounter and spins it into a tragicomic tale of woe, a glimpse into the grim future of curdled success and misbegotten dreams that seems to await so many Hollywood figures, be they stars or hangers-on. Through it all, Alana and Gary’s connection retains a strange purity, though the moments when that boundary is threatened bear an undeniably transfixing discomfort. If the misadventures of Licorice Pizza have a moral, it escaped me—but Alana’s homesickness for teenagehood is a heady enough force to push the viewer along.