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Image of Licorice Pizza
Image by MGM

“Licorice Pizza” is an Oddity, with a Bitter Aftertaste

By Ethan Lauren

Paul Thomas Anderson (“Punch-Drunk Love,” “There Will be Blood”) delivers a fresh, warm circle of “Licorice Pizza” to theaters.

Set in the San Fernando Valley, during the 1970s, “Licorice Pizza” takes its namesake from a now-defunct chain of record stores in the area.

The film revolves around the meeting of teenage actor Gary Valentine and Alana, 25 and unsure of her place in the world. Despite their age difference, romantic and platonic feelings clash as the pair bond over water beds, the ongoing oil crisis at the time, and lots of jealousy toward one another. Gary and Alana, played by Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, respectively, are electric on screen.

This is Hoffman’s first role—and at the time of this publishing, doesn’t even have a photo of himself on IMDb—and he delivers a charming performance of a young man eager to make a living, blemishes and all. Haim belongs to the titular band alongside her sisters; Anderson himself has directed several of their music videos (“Summer Girl,” “Hallelujah,” “Now I’m in It”).

RationalizIng the age difference can be hard to get past despite the film’s valiant attempts. A woman in her mid-twenties bumming around with a snot-nosed teenager, fresh out of puberty, is not a common pairing for many good reasons, and it’s one that really tested my patience.

The atmosphere in “Licorice Pizza” is wonderful, with an excellent soundtrack from musicians of the time. There’s always an energy to each scene, immersing you in the past. Actual sets, period clothing and cars, it all adds to the detail of reconstructing this by-gone era.

One stand-out performance goes to Bradley Cooper, portraying Jon Peters, a real man who once dated Barbara Streisand during the time “Licorice Pizza” takes place. Cooper is chaotic in every definition of the word, being a true delight even in his short screen-time of yelling, throwing, chasing, the fact that all of this is a lampoon made it all the sweeter.

Another reason to watch is Benny Safdie’s portrayal of Joel Wachs, a congressman with a secret. He’s a real politician so maybe you’ve heard of him, but I’ll abide by my no-spoil policy.

However, while my initial impressions were positive I can’t overlook one aspect of the movie, that being a racist moment regarding a man and his wife, her being Japanese. The scene’s sole purpose is to be a vehicle for strange, off-putting racism which uses the issue for a laugh, rather than providing any new social commentary. The characters are never brought up again, the story doesn’t hinge upon these characters, and no consequences are given in regard to the racism.

If we have to forgive or excuse racism in order to appreciate art then we really haven’t grown at all as a society since the seventies. If the scene’s intent was an effort not to romanticize the past, then it failed because all it did was propagate outdated stereotypes, rather than challenge them in a fresh light. I can’t deny that this won’t matter for some viewers, being so small an aspect of “Licorice Pizza,” but it remains a sour note, nonetheless.

Despite the above aside, “Licorice Pizza” is indeed a mesmerizing capsule, not only of the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s but of our fleeting youth and the mutability of our own lives. Rock that denim, and feather that hair because peace and love are coming back, baby—but, please, avoid the bigotry.