At the beginning of “Licorice Pizza,” Alana Kane and Gary Valentine — portrayed by Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, respectively — sit down for dinner at Tail o’ the Cock, a restaurant that Valentine frequents. The two seem to immediately hit it off. Valentine, clearly infatuated with his companion, goes on an earnest charm offensive. Kane seems to be won over. You can see it in her eyes when Valentine, having only met her earlier that day, promises that he’s “not gonna forget [her].”
There’s only one issue with this tentative courtship, and it’s a big one. Valentine, an actor and entrepreneur, is 15 years old. Kane, an adrift woman working as a photographer’s assistant, is 25. No matter how charmed she may be by his assured bravado and earnest emotional appeals, Kane knows that this blossoming relationship can’t turn into anything more than a friendship. Still, no matter how hard she might work to deny them, the mutual feelings remain.
The dynamic between these characters, perpetually stuck somewhere between platonic and romantic, forms the emotional core of “Licorice Pizza.” For fans of Paul Thomas Anderson, the film’s highly esteemed writer and director, this should come as no surprise.
For the entirety of his work this century, Anderson has been chronicling complicated relationships. His fascination with the shifting dynamics that play out between two people is the main throughline linking all of his last few films, connecting “Licorice Pizza” to otherwise dissimilar films like “There Will Be Blood.” Even “Inherent Vice,” his labyrinthine noir with a seemingly endless cast of characters, pivots around its protagonist’s feelings for an ex-girlfriend who suddenly re-enters his life.
In “Licorice Pizza,” the central relationship plays out against the backdrop of the San Fernando Valley of the early 1970s. This setting, near and dear to Anderson’s Californian heart, is gorgeously realized with a palpable sense of affection. The director lingers on the small cultural and geographical details that seem to most fascinate him. Bars, waterbeds, an oil embargo and L.A. politics all give the film a remarkable degree of specificity. Oftentimes, Anderson seems less concerned with story than with the simple act of reveling in the environment he’s recreated.
Crucially, though, Anderson never loses sight of the relationship at the core of his movie. The film’s structure ultimately consists of little more than a series of vignettes, but the audience is anchored to Kane and Valentine the whole way through. Even the most seemingly unrelated detours, ranging from an ill-fated motorcycle jump with an aging movie star to a 1973 mayoral campaign, effect significant emotional changes in the film’s central characters and the dynamics of their relationship. For all of the film’s narrative sprawl and rambling plotting, nothing here is truly superfluous.
Most importantly, all of these vignettes are enormously entertaining. Enlivened by wonderful supporting performances from Bradley Cooper, Skyler Gisondo and Harriet Sansom Harris among others, the movie is full of funny sequences and memorable characters. In fact, the film is so frequently light-hearted and innocently amusing that its dramatic weight ultimately sneaks up on the viewer.
By the end of the movie, the full nature of Kane and Valentine’s entanglement becomes clear — not only do they share a tentative and illicit attraction, but they also provide each other with a mutual escape from the ugliness of the adult world. For all of the love Anderson clearly has for 1970s California, he doesn’t sugarcoat its more unsavory qualities and characters. His mixture of the bleak and the beautiful gives the ending of “Licorice Pizza” an emotional kick, and ultimately makes the film a wonderful piece of work.