Licorice Pizza is a coming-of-age dramedy by Paul Thomas Anderson. The film centers around the relationship between ambitious high school student Gary Valentine and Alana Kane, a photographer’s assistant in her 20s, who Gary meets on school picture day. Together, they go on various journeys together, including acting and starting a waterbed company.

What I Loved About Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza reads like a love letter to LA in the 70s. The cinematography is stunning, mixing with the colorization and impeccable soundtrack to create an immersive viewing experience. There’s a unique magic to the film. You feel like you’re being transported back in time from the first frame, living in a different world for the full two hours.

This film also shines in the specificity of the subcultures it examines. From the odd nostalgia of school picture day to the waterbed craze to the sudden legalization of pinball machines, there’s a stylized nicheness that really works.

This translates to the direction as well. Anderson’s use of reflection shots, seeing the action take place via a window to employ a mirror-like effect, is particularly interesting and captivating. One of the most creative and suspenseful scenes finds Alana driving a car backward down a steep, windy hill. I found myself in awe of the direction and editing of that entire sequence, as it had me on the edge of my seat alternating between gasping and laughing.

I was also taken by how authentic the sibling relationships felt — particularly the dynamic between Alana and her sisters. The combination of natural closeness and biting, brutal honesty feels lived-in and real. The decision to cast Alana Haim’s real-life siblings and parents paid off, and it is a highlight of the film for me.

The movie really sang when it focused on the Hollywood aspects. Gary’s struggle to straddle the world between being a child actor and growing into a man created a fascinating dichotomy. Alana’s first taste of show business was compelling as well. There’s one scene where, on Gary’s advice, she says she can do every special skill that’s brought up — one of the most hilarious (and relatable) bits in the film.

What I Didn’t Love About Licorice Pizza

While there is a lot to love about the film, there are a few elements of the plot that didn’t quite connect for me. For instance, the arrest scene seems to come out of the blue and is never fully explained. To me, it felt like an odd and unnecessary tangent rather than a vital part of moving the story along and seeing the characters grow.

The slice-of-life style, while dynamic, makes the film suffer from a lack of cohesion. Though the relationship between Gary and Alana is obviously meant to be the film’s core, the focus seemed to shift and meander from one side character to another at points. (The final section seems to belong to another character entirely: mayoral candidate Joel Wachs.) Though these side characters are entertaining, the fact we only see them for a brief time makes their own journeys feel incomplete. This really detracts from Gary and Alana’s narrative.

Photo: MGM

Gary and Alana’s relationship can’t be put in a box — they’re friends, business partners, crushes, and eventually significant others. While this reflects the experience of adolescence and rings true to the messiness of growing up. The significant age gap does create some hesitation when it comes to rooting for them romantically. (Though both Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, it should be noted, are incredibly charming, both turning out bold, sharp performances.)

There is one gag that took me out of the film entirely. That was the casual racism with the owner of the Japanese restaurant. Though the joke is meant to make the white owner look foolish, the exaggerated Asian accent felt out of touch. Beyond that, it’s a joke that’s been done to death. The unoriginal, hurtful stereotyping adds nothing of substance to the film except controversy.

Bottom Line

If you’re a Paul Thomas Anderson who is looking to step yourself in a vibrant blast from the past, you’re sure to enjoy the journey Licorice Pizza offers. However, if you prefer a more grounded, focused narrative, you may become frustrated with some of the more indulgent aspects and storylines. Licorice Pizza offers a collage of many quirky subcultures and larger-than-life characters, some more effective than others.

Licorice Pizza is available to watch now in theaters.

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