I saw three films in 2021 featuring fine lead female performances by huge pop
stars: Jennifer Hudson in Respect, Lady Gaga in House of Gucci, and Alana Haim
of the vocal group, Haim in Licorice Pizza. All three deserved Oscar
consideration, but all three got snubbed. My favorite performance (and film) of the three was by far Alana Haim’s
portrayal of Alana Kane in Licorice Pizza. She plays a feisty, endearing
quintessential all American girl next door that everyone would want to know.
The film did score some major Oscar nominations including best picture, best
original screenplay, and best director. It may have a shot at getting best
West Side Story
Power of the Dog
are more likely to win.
Licorice Pizza is an utterly charming period piece that masterfully recreates
the 70s as seen through the eyes of a young man and the woman he is pursuing (Haim).
It is about the sometimes-wacky adventures of a 15-year male huckster who is
always looking for an angle and a more mature but tempestuous
25-year-old female that he has a crush on. The screenplay is loosely based on
some adventures of the TV and film producer, Gary Goetzman. The film essentially
spotlights his real early life hi-jinks.
The film is named after a famous SoCal record store that existed in the late
'70s and '80s. The expression is also slang for pizza sized and shaped vinyl
records, which have the appearance of black licorice. The store was a favorite
of the film’s writer/director who said he feels warm feelings of nostalgia
whenever he hears the phrase. This ties into the film because everything happens
in front of the background of film and music culture.
Licorice Pizza was made by Paul Thomas Anderson who has directed back to back
classics or near classics for decades including Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There
Will be Blood, and Phantom Thread. He also made the terrific Punch-Drunk Love
which is one of the few Adam Sandler films I loved.
The film also includes some amusing parodies of the 70s and Hollywood culture
(which is often presented as utterly absurd) and although this film is much
sunnier, it would make a nice companion piece to other Hollywood satires such as
Day of the Locust or
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
The story begins when Gary Valentine (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son-Cooper) an experienced beyond his years 15-year-old high school student meets a
much older woman Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and is
instantly smitten on his way to taking yearbook pictures.
The two become quick friends. And when Gary needs someone to accompany him to
New York TV special she ends up tagging along. She soon meets a smug
co-star/actor who she has a brief relationship with. Of course, both Gary and presumably the audience hate him instantly and completely.
Although Alana is tempted by Gary’s contagious hyper energy (which she shares)
deep down she realizes that they can never work as a couple. Their relationship
seems to fall in that grey area between a romance and friendship mostly
because she wants it that way.
Gary is loveable but slightly ridiculous in his beach boys like haircut, but his
persistence and confidence could wear almost anyone down. Shortly after he meets
Alana, he declares she is “the girl I am going to marry someday,” while she
continually insists, “We are not boyfriend and girlfriend.”
The film touches upon the importance of Alana’s spiritual heritage when she
brings home her new love interest. Alana’s dad asks her beau to do the family’s
Jewish blessing and unwisely he immediately announces he is an atheist which
does not over too well with the family and they send him packing
The film also mocks the faddishness of South Cal culture when Alana and Gary start a
joint business venture selling water beds. They even have a nifty saying,
“Liquid Luxury for You” and Gary jokingly considers using joints to attract
Gary and Alana also meet other eccentric personalities such as the Charles
Manson-like hairdresser Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), and John C. Reilly who
appears as Fred Gwynne, the Herman Munster actor.
There is a parade of real life big and minor celebrities as well as people that
won’t ever make it. Like the Kinks’ song says: “everyone is a dreamer, and everyone
is a star” or at least everyone wants to be one in this South-Cal setting.
Bradley Cooper is absolutely hysterical and almost unrecognizable in his small,
comedic role wearing a porn star like getup. And many including me thought he
should have been gotten a best supporting actor nomination.
Although the film is mostly whimsical and upbeat, it sometimes hints at many
injustices, imbalances, and prejudices in the Hollywood workplaces. Alana works
as a photographer, and she constantly must endure her slimy bosses’ sexual
harassment, and she always must dress in uncomfortable hot pants at her job.
There is also quirky but despicable character who brings to light certain truths
about Hollywood biases. Gary’s mom works for a restaurant owner who has more
than one Japanese wife and always speaks to them in a hideous mock Asian accent.
At one point there is kind of a weird and unsettling Taxi Driver homage where they practically
recreate the whole campaign headquarters scene involving Cybill Shepard from the
film, complete with similar dialog; something that hard core film buffs should enjoy.
The soundtrack features original songs by the always excellent Jonny Greenwood
of Radiohead as well a mixed bag of songs which serve as time signals such as
The Doors’ Peace Frog, David Bowie’s Life on Mars, Gordon Lightfoot’s If You
Could Read My Mind, and Paul and Linda McCartney’s Let me Roll It.
The film always seems authentic and some of the fictional characters I
encountered in this film seemed more real than the family members I encountered
at this year’s Christmas parties. This heartfelt film is somewhat like American Graffiti because it brilliantly
takes you back to a time when the future was unwritten, and anything was
possible. It is delight from start to finish.