Licorice Pizza Review: Alana Haim Is A Revelation In Paul Thomas Anderson's Wonderful Trip Back To The 1970s

Some performers just have it. I don't know what it is, exactly. It's a mood; an attitude; a je ne sais quoi, if you want to get real pretentious about it. A certain kind of confidence. When people take one look at someone in a movie and think, "that person is a star," what they're saying is, "That person has it." That special something that elevates someone; makes them stand out, glimmering like the star at the top of a Christmas tree, or a candle burning bright and warm against cold darkness. And whatever it is, Alana Haim has it. Haim, who is already a rock star thanks to her work with her two sisters in the band HAIM, is front in center in Paul Thomas Anderson's absolutely wonderful "Licorice Pizza," and I mean this without the slightest trace of hyperbole: she's a star. That this is Haim's feature acting debut is staggering — it's almost unbelievable that she could waltz onto a movie screen for the first time and be this good, but she is. She really is. 

Haim is so cool, so confident, so funny. She's also honest in a way that's disarming. Her character exudes a hip coolness, but Haim also perfectly nails the insecurities buried within her character. She radiates a kind of warm energy that knocks you for a loop. This is not a showy performance, but Haim steals the show. I can think of a dozen different cliches to use here — the camera loves her, etc., etc. — and they'd all be true. I genuinely can't remember the last time a debut performance was this damn good, this damn right. It's like the stars aligned, and a prophecy has been fulfilled. Put Alana Haim in all the movies, I say.

Haim is Alana Kane, a 25-year-old still stuck at home, living with her parents and sisters (played by Haim's real-life parents and sisters), somewhere in the San Fernando Valley in 1973. It's a sunny world where everyone looks wired and tired, and Hollywood looms. Old school movie stars occasionally arrive, drunken and worn-down, and so do younger movie producers who think they're the next big thing. Anderson, who grew up here, has covered this ground before, and he has a way of making it feel like a magical and mythical land that's also kind of grungy and harsh. Everyone looks like they could use a shower and a glass of orange juice. Nixon is president. A gas crisis is on the way. And Alana is working as an assistant to a gropey local photographer.

A Massive Overachiever

It's school picture day, and Alana is first spotted carrying a hand mirror and wandering past a line of high schoolers, blandly asking them if they want to do a last-minute check on their hair. Most of the teens ignore her, and that's perfectly fine with Alana, who clearly doesn't care much for this work. But one of the students takes notice and asks to gaze into her mirror. This is Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old with more confidence than most people twice his age. Like Max Fisher in Wes Anderson's "Rushmore," Gary is a massive overachiever. He's also a con man, a hustler, and an actor. Literally. He's in the midst of a child acting career that, while not wildly successful, still seems to be going places.

Gary and Alana strike up a conversation here, and Anderson follows them as the two bounce off each other, Gary shamelessly flirting while Alana mocks him. But in her eye-rolling disdain, we also get the sense that Alana is kind of interested in this much younger guy. Probably not in a romantic way, at last not yet. More of a curiosity. She can't believe the nerve of this kid, who clearly thinks he's charming as hell, pimples and all. And you know what? He's probably right.

Because when he asks Alana to go out with him for a drink (of soda — remember, he's 15) later that night, Alana actually shows up. And a clumsy, awkward, sweet, problematic, and kind of wonderful friendship is born. Gary, for all his swagger and confidence, is still very much a horny teenager, and while it's clear he sees something in Alana he doesn't see in other girls he unapologetically flirts with, he also doesn't know how to articulate that.

Alana, for her part, seems to be along for the ride. "Do you think it's weird I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends?" she asks one of her sisters later, before adding: "I think it's weird I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends." And yet, she keeps doing it. Even when Gary acts like a complete jerk. Even when she finds men her own age — and older — to flirt with. These two just can't help but gravitate towards each other.

Waterbeds and Pinball Machines

Anderson dips in and out of the lives of these characters, taking a refreshingly laidback approach to the story unfolding here. The filmmaker trusts his audience to fill in the blanks, and therefore omits certain details and moments that would be fully spelled out in a different director's hands. At one point, Gary gravitates away from acting, but Anderson doesn't give us a big scene where he explains why, because it doesn't matter. Like Alana, we're just sort of going along with the ride here.

This ultimately gives "Licorice Pizza" a shaggy-dog hang-out vibe that's irresistible. Again, I don't want to get too hyperbolic here, but watching "Licorice Pizza" reminded me why I love movies so much; particularly the way they can drop us into another place and another time, and embed us completely into the lives of total strangers. If "Licorice Pizza" had stretched on for another hour, I would've been perfectly content to go along.

After leaving acting in the rearview, Gary starts launching a series of businesses with Alana's help. It might be hard to believe a 15-year-old kid can launch one business, let alone several, and yet it seems perfectly acceptable based on Gary's character. Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, has a great way of making Gary both likable and annoying. We can see how some people could grow weary of this fast-talking huckster. We can also see how easy it would be to get swept up in his mad schemes. A waterbed business gives way to an arcade business (after a ban on pinball machines is lifted), and time and time again, Gary carries himself like someone who knows exactly what he's doing, even if it's all a bunch of B.S.

Hoffman is dynamite here, and some of his mannerisms are almost certainly going to remind viewers of his late father. He also exudes an infectious energy and, yes, coolness. But as Alana reminds him, he's not as cool as she is, and as good as Hoffman may be here, the pic belongs to Haim. That's not to say there aren't other standouts, though. Sean Penn is surprisingly funny as a stand-in for actor William Holden, who is portrayed here as a soft-spoken drunk who can't stop monologuing about the jungle.

'I'm Never Going To Forget You'

And then there's Bradley Cooper, who shows up midway through the movie as legendary hairdresser-turned-Hollywood producer Jon Peters. While Anderson uses fake names for several real people — the William Holden character is named Jack Holden, and Christine Ebersole appears early on as Lucille Doolittle, modeled on Lucille Ball — Peters is blatantly identified as Jon Peters. Anderson says he asked Peters for permission and got it, which ultimately makes Cooper's performance even funnier because it suggests the real Jon Peters is A-OK with being portrayed as an absolute lunatic. Cooper's part is brief, but oh-so-memorable, as he threatens Gary with bodily harm while shamelessly hitting on Alana. Later, we see him wandering down a street smashing storefront windows, only pausing when he spots two babes in tennis uniforms walking by.

Alana grows fed-up with her own arrested development and takes a gig as a volunteer for the mayoral campaign of Joel Wachs (another real-life figure, played here by Benny Safdie). But even this ultimately disillusions her, and, try as she might, she just can't stop thinking about Gary Valentine.

There will no doubt be some who take issue with the May-December romance angle here, what with Alana and Gary being so distant in age. But Anderson isn't portraying this as some great, sweeping love affair. It's clumsy, and sweet, and ultimately kind of innocent in its own way. And when he stages multiple moments that involve Gary and Alana running towards each other through the nighttime streets of the Valley, you find yourself sighing, content, and happy. These two might not be destined to be together forever, but for now, they're made for each other. "I'm never going to forget you," Gary tells Alana at the beginning of the movie, after he's just met her. "Just like you're never going to forget me." And you know what? He's probably right.

/Film Review: 10 out of 10