Film review: ‘LIQUORICE PIZZA’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Boogie Nights, The Master and Magnolia director, Paul Thomas Anderson seems to have been imbibing a few Cameron Crowe films if his latest effort, Liquorice Pizza is any indication.  An unusual ‘teen meets older woman’ romance and homage to the California of the 1970’s, this film is apparently based on the life of actor/ producer Gary Goetzman.

The plot of this oddball romantic comedy/drama doesn’t make alot sense as it’s really just a series of vignettes linked by the relationship between lead characters Alana Kane (Alana Haim from the band Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of Phillip Seymour Hoffman).  Set in 1973, the film sees 25-year-old Alana and 15-year-old Gary meet in unusual circumstances at his school and spend the rest of the film in unusual circumstance as their friendship/ romance/ business partnership sputters along.  Weirdly, despite being a schoolkid, Gary is also a stage musical actor and some sort of teen hustler, at one point running a waterbed business and becoming pinball parlour entrepreneur.  Gary manages to drag Alana through his various scams, all the while as uncertain of his relationship with her as many in the audience will be with where the hell this film is going.  Just to make it a little more perplexing, the film’s filled with strange plot shards that come from nowhere and seem to go nowhere, such as Gary being accused of murder and having an intimidating encounter with a violent maniac (Bradley Cooper) who claims to be Barbara Streisand’s boyfriend.  This film’s uber quirky plot could have come from a Thomas Pynchon novel but apparently, at least some of this actually happened to Goetzman.

A disjointed plot isn’t the only problem here.   As a romance Liquorice Pizza isn’t especially romantic.  Alana and Gary’s relationship is just too weird for that and Gary, who bears a slight resemblance to a young Brian Wilson, is a little too creepy to be a likeable and charismatic romantic lead.  He also remains something of a mystery as the film rarely punctures his quirky kid hustler persona.  Cooper Hoffman’s performance lacks the necessary impact to make Gary a vital central character, much like Michael Gandolfini’s portrayal of a young Tony Soprano failed to do in The Many Saints of Newark.  Alana Haim, is at least more engaging.  Somewhere amid this oddball collection of events, her character Alana emerges as a witty, acerbic yet charming and thoughtful human being even if her motives and attitudes remains a little murky.

Where this film succeeds and starts to justify some of the salivating its reviews is in the way it evokes a time, place and mood. Drenched in saturated colours, faded memories and wistful nostalgia for the 1970’s and for the San Fernando Valley of Anderson’s youth, the film often recalls the George Lucas’ classic American Graffiti.  Also, with a title like Liquorice Pizza (slang for a vinyl record and the name of a record store chain at the time) we would expect a focus on music and a decent soundtrack and this film does a fine job here with tunes from Todd Rundgren, The Doors, Paul McCartney and many more.

This isn’t all romantic nostalgia and pop cultural celebration, though, as there’s a menacing undercurrent in this film with the pervasive energy crisis and threatening characters frequently entering Gary and Alana’s lives.  Anderson seems to suggest, through the goofy and enthusiastic Gary’s tendency to run into unexpected danger, a naïve America emerging from the optimistic 60’s and slamming into the dark reality of the 1970’s.

Being set in LA, the story is not surprisingly infused with cinematic references such as Alana’s dalliance with a creepy older actor named Jack Holden (Sean Penn) who is apparently based on William Holden.  Also, parts of Taxi Driver seem to bleed into this film.  There are also historical references such as the Mayoral election campaign of Joel Wachs that seem oddly shoehorned into the story but would probably resonate with those who lived in the area at the time.

The random plot is occasionally off-putting and for a coming-of-age romance, this film doesn’t quite ensnare our emotions the way it should but it’s filled with its characters’ youthful energy, it’s often very funny and succeeds in immersing us in a lost time.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Romantic comedy-drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Paul Thomas Anderson.

Release date: 26th Dec 2021.

Running time: 133 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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