Licorice Pizza (5 stars)

Licorice Pizza

Sean Penn and Alana Haim in Paul Thomas Anderson's latest blast of idiosyncratic charm

Paul Thomas Anderson delivers a delightful, cameo-heavy coming-of-ager fronted by two impressive debut leads

A teenage crush evolves into an endearing co-dependency in this 1970s-set, LA-based adventure from Paul Thomas Anderson. Chock-full of eventful episodes and star cameos, it boasts winning central performances from newcomer Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a regular collaborator with Anderson) and musician Alana Haim who is flanked here by her Haim bandmates and sisters, Este and Danielle, alongside the trio's undoubtedly proud parents, Moti and Donna.

It's a well-established rule of cinema that hard-grafting, entrepreneurial kids are funny (see the films of Wes Anderson or last year's excellent The Kid Detective), and here we're introduced to 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Hoffman), a high-schooler who also works as an actor and for the PR company of his mother Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis). Unfolding in the San Fernando Valley of 1973, the film opens with Gary ambitiously chatting up Haim's Alana Kane, a 25-year-old photographer's assistant who is helping out with his school's yearbook pictures. Intrigued by the unusual lifestyle of this confident teen, the bored, occasionally volatile Alana allows herself to be swept up into it, accompanying Gary on a New York press tour as his chaperone and helping him start up a waterbed business.

Licorice Pizza is partly based on the experiences of Anderson's friend Gary Goetzman, a former child actor and salesman, giving it a truthfulness that's further enhanced by fluid cinematography and the unshowy yet affecting work of its first-timer leads. This fizzy and extremely funny film explores the strangeness of LA's showbiz (and showbiz-adjacent) scene. Full of surreal scenarios, it includes an encounter with Bradley Cooper's Jon Peters (a monstrous caricature of the famous film producer, which Cooper is clearly having a lot of fun with), while Sean Penn sends himself up playing an arrogant and deluded actor.

The move towards romance is inevitably problematic given the age gap, with Anderson recreating permissive times through a modern, more uncomfortable eye, while negotiating and embracing that awkwardness well. Although it channels Fast Times At Ridgemont High and American Graffiti, Licorice Pizza delivers a fresh blast of romance and humour, and feels idiosyncratic enough to stand gloriously apart.

Licorice Pizza is in cinemas from Saturday 1 January.

Licorice Pizza

  • 5 stars
  • 2021
  • US / Canada
  • 2h 13min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie

Coming-of-age drama set it 1973.