Hollywood often waters down characters and storylines to make them universally appealing. Filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson with Licorice Pizza, or David O. Russell with Joy and The Fighter, are challenging that notion with stories of tremendous specificity — specificity of character, location, obstacle, and endeavor — that find universal appeal without dilution.
In pursuit of that specificity, Anderson casts two unknown actors as the leads in Licorice Pizza. Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman make auspicious feature film debuts as young people falling in love in the ’70s San Fernando Valley. Haim initially resists Hoffman’s overly-confident romantic overtures — he is, after all, only fifteen, and she is twenty-five. But over a period of years, and through a handful of escapades, the two keep coming back to each other.
Anderson showed us the seedy underbelly of the Valley in Boogie Nights, but through the eyes of Haim and Hoffman, those same streets and sidewalks transform into a colorful wonderland, where anything seems possible — even true love. While Haim and Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) anchor the film with their wonderfully natural, unassuming performances, Anderson sprinkles several real-life figures and events throughout their journey. Sean Penn plays a character based on William Holden, drunkenly reliving a big-screen motorcycle stunt while Haim holds onto him for dear life. Bradley Cooper nearly steals the show as volatile film producer Jon Peters, a caricature (?) that’s as funny as it’s terrifying. On a more mature note, Anderson puts Haim on the election campaign for Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), a real Valley councilman who kept his sexuality a secret at the expense of his boyfriend (Joseph Cross). These vignettes may sound completely unrelated, but each informs Haim and Hoffman on their journey, showing them various forms of false love on their serendipitous journey to true love.
If you’re looking for a plot, you might be disappointed. Licorice Pizza is entirely in service to character, a breezy ‘hangout’ movie that casts a spell. It tells a love story seemingly unaware that love stories have ever been told before. And that’s the power of specificity. We all know love is the destination and we’ve been there many times, but we’ve never seen these two people fall in love before. It’s a credit to Anderson, Haim, and Hoffman that a film this loose and bare-laid works so well. Haim in particular is one to keep an eye on. There hasn’t been a debut this electrifying since Jennifer Lawrence.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay