He’s Come a Long Way, Baby: Licorice Pizza, Reviewed

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | BRON Studios

Note: this review passes the writer’s personal definition of “spoiler-free,” but the supremely cautious should be advised that it discusses a characterization choice relevant to the final act.


Much like the film itself,
the poster for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza foregrounds Alana Haim, who stands with hands on hips as her co-star, Cooper Hoffman, looks on from the slightly hazy background. Across Haim’s shirt, there are printed six small words: You’ve come a long way, baby.

This slogan dates back to a late-‘60s Virginia Slims campaign, one that cashed in on the women’s lib movement as a means of selling an apparently enlightened brand of cigarettes. Beyond winking at Anderson’s perpetual fascination with how culture and consumerism intertwine, the slogan choice is an appropriate one to assign Haim’s character. Alana Kane, disaffected twenty-something at the center of this San Fernando Valley picaresque, certainly longs to have come a long way from the confines of her restrictive Jewish upbringing. But the invocation of the slogan can be read, too, as a statement on Anderson’s part: sure, I’m back to making movies in the Valley, but I’ve come a long way, baby. And indeed he has—except, painfully frustratingly, for the ways he hasn’t.

To begin with areas of growth and development, Anderson has, at long last, delivered a fully three-dimensional female co-lead. Alana is granted the agency to push back, pursue whims that have little to do with her male counterpart, and even have her own home life—tricks Anderson never quite managed in prior romances (though the extent to which Licorice Pizza could be called a romance depends very much on the viewer’s definition of the term). Despite her essentially stable home life of evident privilege—if anything, Anderson draws comic power from the dissonance—Alana is another in the long line of alienated Andersonian protagonists, as lost as Freddie Quell and just as receptive to the uncannily persuasive snake-oil pitches of a soft-faced man (or boy) who assures her the whims of fate have put them on a course to change one another’s destinies.

It’s not hard to see Doc Sportello as a woozy relaxation of the sodden tension found in Anderson’s prior Joaquin Phoenix character, Freddie, nor is it hard to note the handoff between brutal greed and genteel artistry in Anderson’s two Daniel Day-Lewis characters, Plainview and Woodcock. With Licorice Pizza, Anderson looks back at and revises the full unofficial “Valley trilogy” that predated this more recent rhyming quartet: like Boogie Nights, we’re back in the ‘70s Valley milieu that he once spoke of in terms of David Lean-style epic potential; like Magnolia, we have a sprawling ensemble and decentralized (if far more focused on designated central characters) narrative; and, like Punch-Drunk Love most of all, we have the story of two half-broken people who just might be able to mend one another through the matching power of their own individual half-brokenness.

With Licorice Pizza serving as a kind of Rosetta Stone for Anderson’s filmography (even There Will Be Blood is pulled into the thematic fray via the devastating 1973 gas crisis, which serves as another paving stone on the road to ecological and geopolitical ruin forged by Daniel Plainview), Hoffman’s Gary Valentine—a tall-tale-hero version of erstwhile child actor and current Hollywood power player, Gary Goetzman—could be seen as the melding of every major character Anderson ever wrote for the untrained young actor’s late father, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Roiling within the hormonal but essentially noble Gary is the hangdog longing of Boogie Nights’ Scotty, the tender concern of Magnolia’s Phil, the mattress entrepreneurship of Punch-Drunk Love’s Dean (if that one’s a stretch, it’s also the one that’s hardest to see as unintentional), and the eerie magnetism of The Master’s spiritual leader, Lancaster Dodd, who steers the Alana-esque Freddie on a course of self-discovery influenced more often than not by the strength of their feelings for one another.

If Gary is the uber-Hoffman, he’s also something of an uber-Anderson protagonist; as the consummate hustler, Gary is the apex of Anderson’s longtime fixation on salesmen and the spiritual cost of a commodified culture. Salesmanship has no fixed morality in the Anderson universe—There Will Be Blood is dragged into damnation by the supposed incompatibility of selling oil and religion, but retail is the domain of both villain and hero in Punch-Drunk Love—and as the Valley of Licorice Pizza becomes progressively strewn with the men who pass through Gary and Alana’s lives, each disappointing in their own way, the hustler emerges as the last good man standing. Gary may be primarily in the business of selling Gary, but he does so with boundless affection for—and defense of—his loved ones, who contribute both labor and emotional support to his various regular family businesses (to again invoke There Will Be Blood). The young Mr. Valentine may well be the closest thing to a classical hero that Anderson has offered us, and the fact that his heroic arc is one of serial entrepreneurship feels ideally Andersonian.

Comparisons to Robert Altman have abounded in reviews of Licorice Pizza, particularly with the invocation of terms like “loose” and “shaggy.” More so than the mumbling and shuffling rhythms of Altman, however, in Anderson’s ninth film I see his first that truly evokes the work of his hero, the late Jonathan Demme; the story calls to mind not so much the prestige fare that defined Demme’s ‘90s output as the scrappy work he produced in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. With an episodic narrative in which characters race to stay one step ahead of the consequences of their actions, as well as its copious you-get-the-idea time jumps, Anderson seems to have made his Crazy Mama or Citizens Band—and what is the cockeyed optimist Gary but a new take on the perpetually stymied dreamer at the center of Melvin and Howard?

The film bears a winking dedication to the recently deceased provocateur, “Robert Downey Sr. (a prince),” and while Anderson has never managed to fully embrace the transgressive power that fueled Downey’s joy-buzzer satires, there’s undeniable taboo-pushing value in the film’s ambiguous perspective on Gary and Alana’s relationship—one separated by a decade’s age difference and that all-important dividing line of legality, which is still three years off at the story’s outset. For this, there will likely be clucking from some corners that this story is sick, but it’s worth remembering one of the catchphrases of Anderson’s father, a renowned host of schlocky TV horror: “Stay sick,” Ernie Anderson (via his Ghoulardi persona) would advise. It wasn’t get sick or be sick because, of course, we’re each sick to varying degrees already, so we may as well stay that way.

Given all the ways that Anderson has come a long way, baby in expanding and deepening his palette on both a craft level (never has one of his films felt free to breathe so easily in performance, camerawork, and narrative rhythms) and a thematic one (at long last, we have an Anderson mom who’s both living and loving), his seeming disinterest in addressing his non-gender blindspots is growing maddening. Again, Asian women are relegated to the role of farcical sex objects, and notable Black characters are nonexistent—an omission that’s galling not just given the controversy Anderson courted by whitewashing the Valley with Magnolia nearly a quarter-century ago, but for the potential diversity in the boisterous Licorice Pizza’s cast-of-thousands sweep. The conversation surrounding the film in December and January will likely be fraught, and it’s not hard to imagine a world in which concerns were alleviated by a few judiciously different casting choices. If this is Anderson’s effort, as he’s said in Q&As, to show that “the history of the movies…is really [the history of] the Valley,” then the history of the movies is apparently even whiter than I’d realized.

Meanwhile, he remains perversely intent on punishing his gay characters. When Benny Safdie makes a late appearance as real-life Valley political fixture, Joel Wachs, Anderson wrings every drop of agonizing pathos he can from Wachs’ then-closeted status. If the politician is presented as the decent and upstanding man he by all accounts is, Anderson paints his path as having cost him some share of his humanity—and while the effects are more nuanced and poignant than the histrionic stories of Scotty and Donnie in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, I can’t help but long to see a happy and fulfilled gay character in an Anderson film (and no, the effete houseboy of Bradley Cooper’s maniacal Jon Peters doesn’t count), a notion he’s apparently as disinterested by in his 50s as he was in his 20s.

In November 2020, Peter Marks wondered in the Washington Post, “What great work will emerge from this pandemic?” About two weeks later, Licorice Pizza wrapped principal photography, and while it was conceived and written in a pre-COVID world, the resulting work has the feel of the “bubble” film it is. If this cast and crew were concerned with safety above all (this was not just one of the first major films to go into production in defiance of the pandemic, it was one of the few to—so far as we know—avoid significant incident), then the project was motivated by care and compassion on a cellular level. This implicit effect is only heightened by the presence of a safety-safeguarding ensemble of friends (John C. Reilly’s appearance is brief but more than memorable), family (the credits, as Ben Mankiewicz noted in a recent talkback, are thick with the names Anderson, Rudolph, and Haim), and the family of friends (Tim Conway Jr., son of a former collaborator and friend of Ernie Anderson’s, pops in, as does Sasha Spielberg, among others).

Anderson’s films often seem to take place in snow globe worlds in which the American experiment swirls and churns according to the parameters he’s established on a given project, be they nihilistic (There Will Be Blood), eerily enigmatic (The Master), or madcap-tragicomic (Inherent Vice). Ensconced in a CDC-mandated bubble, Anderson has for the first time managed to produce a film distinguished not merely by his characteristic fascination with the world but by a deep love for it. The difference is breathtaking—Andy Jurgensen earns my vote for the year’s best editing based on the final few minutes alone—and borderline transcendent. When one of Hollywood’s preeminent writer-directors, who produces only a handful of works in a decade, chooses to spend precious cinematic capital on a story that so often focuses time on bullshitting between the rock band he’s all but officially partnered with and his departed buddy’s gangly kid—all of it shot with an eye towards eventual awe-inspiring 70mm projection—something rare and magical is loosed into the theater. Whatever it is, it’s worth catching and savoring; this sort of living, breathing, big-hearted auteur work has never been rarer, nor more precious.

Licorice Pizza opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 26, and nationwide on December 25.