You finish high school.
You go to college. Maybe you don't.
You get a job. You get married. You have kids.
Maybe you don't. But you do.
You get yourself a piece of land. You know? Like maybe a little piece of the American dream?
If you're lucky, really lucky, then life works out the way it's supposed to.
Of course, we know that life doesn't always work out the way it's supposed to.
I'm sitting here at my keyboard writing a review for Paul Thomas Anderson's Licorice Pizza on the exact anniversary of one of my life's grandest traumas, my wife's death by suicide and the death of my newborn daughter.
I had it all figured it out. It felt like maybe, just maybe, I was within moments of snagging that white picket fence fantasy.
Then, it all went up in flames. Not literally, but you get the picture.
In the perfect world, I'd get a second chance. A redemption story of sorts. Oh sure, the memories would always linger but in the perfect world I'd get another shot at marriage and a kid or two to make my life complete.
But yeah, life ain't perfect. We try and we try and we try and we try.
Sometimes we get it. Sometimes we don't.
I've always felt a strong kinship with Paul Thomas Anderson, a dark optimist of a filmmaker with a spiritual gift for finding the beauty in the fugly and for finding redemption stories for people who haven't always earned them. I sometimes wish that Anderson had written my life story.
Alas, he didn't.
He did, however, write Licorice Pizza, a film that on the surface seems like it's a lesser Anderson flick, a light and even humorous coming-of-age story involving two people, Gary (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana (Alana Haim), who are seemingly mismatched partly by their several year age difference and partly because one, Gary, is wildly ambitious, while the other is still searching for her voice in a world that hasn't yet embraced the idea that women have voices that need to be heard.
Set in 1970's San Fernando Valley, Licorice Pizza is a coming-of-age story for both Gary and Alana and the Hollywood scene that surrounds them. While you may be thinking to yourself that this all has some creepster vibes, rest assured that there's not a provocative bone in the cinematic body of Licorice Pizza and Anderson is far too gifted of a storyteller to tackle a story so lazily.
Gary and Alana meet at Gary's high school, Alana's presence pretty much resigned to being the pretty little thing for a photographer doing school photos while it's clear in these opening moments that Gary sees the Alana that Alana wants to be.
He boldly asks her out. She scoffs. "How are you going to pay for it," she asks. He starts spewing forth his acting credits, a not particularly full resume that has afforded him a certain notoriety that Alana has yet to dream of.
In her acting debut, musician Alana Haim is simply extraordinary as a disaffected twentysomething who falls into the otherworldly orbit of Cooper Hoffman's wildly ambitious and smooth-talking teenaged Gary, whose interest in Alana is more curious than sexual and far more granted in that need for human connection than it is in the objectification that otherwise surrounds Alana whether she's at home, work, or volunteering for a local politician.
In the earliest moments of Licorice Pizza, it's evident that Gary and Alana are years apart yet it is undeniably Gary whose life trajectory is moving upward and it would seem, at least by productivity standards, that Gary is the mature one. Yet, over the course of Licorice Pizza's 2+ hour running time we see a transformation as Gary relaxes into who he is and Alana grows into her own identity and both somehow become better human beings because of their undeniable connection that exists somewhere between deepest of friends or platonic lovers or, perhaps, even both.
To get caught up on ages is to miss the point of Licorice Pizza, a film worries less about the idea of romance and more about the idea of two human beings who desperately need connection somehow finding a way for connection in a world that far too often sexualizes it or bastardizes it or simply refuses to allow it to happen.
I'm not sure that Licorice Pizza would have worked had Anderson cast himself a couple of A-listers instead of a couple of newbies with admittedly familiar names. Licorice Pizza is a near masterpiece that never feels like one, a breezy and carefree jaunt through a 70's LA scene that practically begs to be caricaturized and pretty much was in Tarantino's Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, a cinematic cousin to this film that more worships the scene while Anderson seems to cast it a wary eye.
Casting cinematic newcomers Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman is a stroke of genius not unlike Anderson's casting of funnyman in the anything but funny Punch-Drunk Love. Haim, one-third of the band Haim, is the film's true breakout star and will most certainly have other offers floating her way but it's doubtful that many will be as so specifically tailored to her as Anderson has made Alana Kane. Haim gives the film a refreshing purity that it's difficult to imagine any other actress giving it. This is her role and she owns it from beginning to end. She's funny and disarming, naive and sweet, misguided but so damn close to feminism that you practically expect a Wonder Woman cape to show up at some point.
Cooper Hoffman, and by now you likely already know that this is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman's son, at times so eerily resembles his father that it gives his turn as Gary Valentine an added layer of poignancy and honesty. This is Hoffman's first feature role and he's already almost stunningly good. You can't help but eagerly anticipate the young actor's future.
While Licorice Pizza has this odd, largely platonic coupling as its foundation, Anderson immerses Gary and Alana in the world in which they live. This creates the opportunity for a handful of A-listers to show up in extended cameos, from Sean Penn's bravado styled after a certain Hollywood legend to musician Tom Waits's hilariously idol-worshipping fan of said legend to Bradley Cooper's scene-stealing turn as real-life Jon Peters. The buzz you've heard about Cooper here is true - it's a brief, awardworthy performance that dances on the edge of insanity but never crosses that line into caricature. Cooper has had quite the amazing year.
Christine Ebersole is a joy as Lucy Doolittle, a Lucille Ball-type who serves as the not so maternal type on Gary's television claim to fame. Ben Safdie, co-director of Uncut Gems, adds depth to the film as Joel Wachs, a political candidate whose secrets could blow up his candidacy at any given moment.
There's darkness all around Licorice Pizza, though it's undeniable that the film is Anderson's funniest and most purely entertaining film to date. This is a film with a strong sense of nostalgia, a cultural rhythm all its own, a lingering edge that makes you constantly wonder where Anderson is going next, and a surprising innocence for a film that could have so easily been incredibly, incredibly dark.
There will be those who consider Licorice Pizza to be Paul Thomas Anderson's weakest film to date (though, to be fair, a weak Anderson film is still better than 90% of the films out there).
There will be those who find provocation where there is none.
Then, there will be those folks like me who tap into Anderson's perpetual sense of dark wonder and unveiling of beauty and realize that Licorice Pizza is ultimately a film about human connection, the worlds and the life experiences that can keep us from it, and the inexplicable little destinies that bring us back to one another time and time again.
I take it back. Licorice Pizza isn't a near masterpiece. Licorice Pizza is a masterpiece, a story about life and the wide-eyed innocent hopefulness that makes us all keep showing up again and again no matter how life beats us down.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic