There were no new wide movie releases this past weekend, and I can’t say I blame the studios given that a snowstorm kept much of the East Coast indoors. Outside of the COVID era, I think this is the farthest down the weekly box office chart I’ve ever had to go to find a movie to review. “Licorice Pizza” came in 9th place in its tenth weekend, earning less than $700,000 on fewer than than 800 screens in the whole country. It should be disheartening that I have to dig so deep, but actually it’s the opposite. I’m glad I have the opportunity to shine a light on this movie, one that normally wouldn’t get this kind of attention in a column that aims to cover blockbusters.
The film comes courtesy of Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most highly-acclaimed writer/directors of his era. It stars Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a frequent Anderson collaborator) and singer Alana Haim, both making their film debuts. I’d say it is extraordinary that these two are so perfect in these roles right out of the gate, but I have to factor in that they have showbusiness pedigrees, so they’ll just have to settle for me saying that they give performances more than befitting their families’ reputations.
The story begins in 1973, where 15-year-old child star Gary (Hoffman) meets 25-year-old photography assistant Alana (Haim, naturally) on School Picture Day. After some frankly uncomfortable persuasion on Gary’s part, the two strike up a relationship, though a more plutonic one than Gary would probably like. Alana accompanies Gary to New York as he sabotages his acting career, and he uses his connections to help her launch her own. I thought the film might take the “A Star is Born” route where she rises as he falls, but she falls right out of acting too after a dangerous episode with a co-star (Sean Penn) convinces both her and Gary that the industry is just too crazy.
The two bounce from one random life chapter to another. He’s briefly accused of a murder, the two start a waterbed business together, they have a terrifying encounter with whacked-out celebrity hairstylist Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), she goes to work on a political campaign because she desperately needs some maturity in her life, he opens a pinball arcade, which she uses as evidence that her life is filled with too much immaturity. The romantic aspect of their relationship is on-again/off-again, and wherever it lands at the end of the movie, you get the impression that it could be the opposite in a matter of hours.
This isn’t a very “exciting” film, in the traditional sense. The murder accusation, a dangerous motorcycle stunt, a stalker on the political campaign, and even the encounter with Peters all end anticlimactically (though the Peters storyline features the best car chase scene in recent memory). It’s all about the journey, and these idealistic kids are the best journey companions you could ask for. They’re so charismatic and the script is so entrancing that the best scene in the movie is them just talking about breathing.
I mentioned earlier that the film is currently playing on fewer than 800 screens in the country. That number is likely to go up in the coming weeks after the Academy Award nominations are announced. The film is slated to get a Best Picture nomination, Anderson is almost certain to get nominated as a director and writer, and Hoffman and Haim could sneak into the acting categories. This movie is worth seeking out, even though it probably won’t be at the top of your local theater’s marquee. Its low-stakes nature might be frustrating at times, along with its practice of leaving storylines without satisfying conclusions, but make no mistake, “Licorice Pizza” has a subtle way of being a rewarding moviegoing experience.
“Licorice Pizza” is rated R for language, sexual material, and some drug use. Its running time is 133 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.