“Licorice Pizza” review: A Valentine to young love and the Valley

Director and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson delivers a new vision for the lovers and dreamers of the world.

By Matthew Royer, Political News Editor

Alana Haim (L) and Cooper Hoffman (R) star in "Licorice Pizza." (Photo Courtesy of BRON Studios)

Hustling to belong in a world that has passed you by. While he does not yet know it, this is the task Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) faces in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ever-charming “Licorice Pizza.”


Valentine, an actor, has just exited his prime, but the problem with this is that he is 15 years old. Growing a few inches taller and with acne starting to appear, he is no longer the cute kid who could star in movies and television. A self-starter, Valentine develops new ploys for himself, always looking for the next big thing. It is like Valentine has a light bulb going off above his head at all times. 1973 has planted Valentine in a precarious position, full of ideas but needing the inspiration to push him in the right direction.


Enter, Alana Kane (Alana Haim).


Kane, a photographer’s assistant, struggles similarly to Valentine. Much older than Valentine, stuck in her older sisters’ (Danielle Haim and Este Haim) spotlight and failing to meet her ex-Israeli Defensive Forces father’s expectations, Kane stumbles upon Valentine in a meet-cute. Valentine is instantly attracted to her and strikes at the opportunity to court Kane. With disregard for their age difference, Valentine attempts to show Kane his maturity based on his years of experience in the film industry. While noting Valentine’s apparent interest, Kane uses this as an opportunity to boost her status in the professional world somehow, launching a start to her next chapter to prove to her father that she is not a failure.


“Licorice Pizza” places the acting newcomers in Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Haim with a group of acting veterans who all seem to find a place to shine. Bradley Cooper gives a lustrous supporting performance as Jon Peters but does not take away from the rest of the cast, showing how brilliant Hoffman and Haim are for rookies when paired with tenured actors. Performers including Sean Penn, Tom Waits and Benny Safdie (as longtime LA councilman Joel Wachs) also display their skills flawlessly, making the film even more enjoyable for moviegoers.


Haim, in particular, delivers a year’s best showing. Despite her greenness to the acting profession, Haim is a clear awards contender. Her notable performance as Kane leads the audience to believe that she is experienced, despite this being her first film. With eyes in theaters glued to the screen, Haim feels like a Valley girl, somebody everyone already knows but also still manages to hide a few secrets along the way.


On the other hand, Hoffman comes across as new, but that is not a bad thing. His portrayal of Valentine is a gift for audience members; Hoffman’s youthfulness carries the role into something more, especially when considering his romantic endeavors in the film.


A modern take on the romantic comedy, Anderson draws inspiration from his own experiences growing up in the San Fernando Valley to set the scene. As the setting for the film in both plot and geography, the Valley is romanticized to feel like a character itself. Local restaurants and bars in Encino are featured, like the long-gone “Tail o’ Cock” and the still-standing “Cupid’s Hot Dogs” are both focal locations for the experience. While the film’s tone will deeply resonate with audiences familiar with the area, they will also not alienate viewers from elsewhere. Anderson’s love for the area is evident.


Based in the ‘70s, Anderson’s film enjoys a free-flowing sense of youthfulness in the air. The craze of disco has yet to die down, Charles Manson has come and passed, everyone seems to know each other and most characters treat one another as equals — even if our leads do not think so themselves.


Compared to Anderson’s previous work about the San Fernando Valley, like 1999’s “Magnolia,” there is a sense of purity in “Licorice Pizza” that is new for the audience. While his prior offerings focused on the state of the human condition and the complex problems individuals face, in 2021, the Valley native maintains the state of a dream, providing audiences with characters to root for, proving that there is good in the world.


If “Magnolia” is Anderson displaying the darker and grittier side of the Valley, then “Licorice Pizza” is Anderson finally letting it all out for the audience to see, writing a love letter to show who and what shaped him as a person.