Licorice Pizza is, like almost every other Paul Thomas Anderson movie, about America. More specifically it is about America as embodied in the San Fernando Valley of California in the 1970s, just as Inherent Vice and Boogie Nights were before it. There Will Be Blood is the prequel: it’s about California in the early 20th century. The Master is another prequel, about mid-century Californian metaphysics. Magnolia moved the timeline into the 90s, albeit one haunted by the 1970s. Hard Eight is set in Las Vegas, but that’s a first film so we’ll cut him some slack. Licorice Pizza is also an oddball romance, like Punch-Drunk Love and The Phantom Thread, neither of which are particularly about America, though the former is more than the latter. It’s about a girl and a boy and the world they live in and how they somehow, against all common sense, find something like love, at least for now.
Alana Haim plays a rudderless 25 year old named Alana who, when working for a company that shoots high school yearbook photos, is spotted by 15 year old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, looking eerily like his father), a precocious go-getter who has just about grown out of being a cute child actor. He falls for her instantly and walks right up and tells her so, beginning the first of several lengthy walk and talk camera movements that form the spine of Anderson’s approach to the film. Alana and Gary are always moving laterally, sometimes walking, often running. All the kids in the movie love to run—they have to, they’re in a hurry. Alana, sensibly, rebuffs Gary’s romantic advances, but the two have an obvious connection and the two strike up a friendship.
The rest of the film follows their various career schemes while deftly negotiating the fact that these two characters are obviously in love but really should not be. It’s a picaresque set almost entirely in the Valley, and it feels like it could have gone on forever, just vibing with all the weirdness of America in the 70s. But the film is far from a nostalgia trip: like its cousin Dazed and Confused, Licorice Pizza is as much about what was, and is, wrong with America as it is about classic rock and questionable fashion. Alana and Gary meet vast array of white people in their adventures, most of them older, most of them seriously fucked up in a way that no one is allow to discuss openly.
There’s Bradley Cooper’s gross John Peters, who hits on every woman he sees and is the definition of an entitled Hollywood hanger-on (a hairdresser and a producer, the real John Peters was a child actor as well). There’s Sean Penn’s aging star actor who reads with the starstruck Alana during an audition, takes her out for drinks (at Gary’s favorite restaurant “The Tail of the Cock”), then loses interest as he and an old director buddy (Tom Waits) recreate a scene from one of their Korean War movies (Penn’s character is named Jack Holden, and is apparently based on William Holden). There’s John Michael Higgins, who plays a the owner of Gary’s other favorite restaurant, who hires Gary’s mother’s PR firm to advertise the place, a Japanese place called The Mikado. Higgins and his Japanese wife listen to the proposed ad (which does everything it can to downplay the food and up the Orientalist appeal), and Higgins “translates” to his wife by adopting a grotesque caricature of a Japanese accent (think Mickey Rooney’s ghastly Breakfast at Tiffany’s performance). He does the same thing in a later scene, now with a different wife (they’re apparently interchangeable for him) and admits that he doesn’t speak Japanese. The performance is too absurd to be based in anything but reality. Finally there’s Benny Safdie as Joel Wachs, a city council member whose campaign for mayor Alana joins as a volunteer. Wachs is a closeted gay man (he came out in 1999, after decades of accomplished service). It’s Alana’s realization of Wachs’s sexuality, and the pain having to hide it causes him and his partner, that sends her back to Gary. Because theirs is a world when all the cultural norms are completely wrong: men as debauched misogynists or macho burnouts, where condescendingly racist fetishizers of other people and cultures are greeted with, at most, a raised eyebrow, where a good man has to call in a beard to a restaurant because his political enemies might find out who he’s really dining with and why. Because in such a world, when you find a true friend, you really have to stick with them.
Or, taken another way, you can see it as a story of integration. Alana’s family is played by her real-life family, her sisters and parents. They’re very Jewish (one agent keeps coming back to Alana’s “Jewish nose”, a potential boyfriend is kicked out of the house for refusing to give the blessing at dinner because he’s an atheist) and it’s easy to read Alana’s attraction to Gary as an Old World/New World thing, with Gary as the embodiment of a wide-eyed American innocence and entrepreneurialism. He’s bursting with crazy schemes, always looking to make a quick buck with waterbeds (inspired by Leonardo DiCaprio’s father) or pinball machines or making campaign commercials. Gary is a hustler who believes deeply in everything (contrast with failed boyfriend Lance, the atheist). Most of all he believes in Alana. This differentiates him from Higgins’s racist restauranteur. Gary is an idealized, uncorrupted American man that doesn’t exploit other cultures, or other people, that hurts only people that deserve it (like that rich asshole John Peters). He’s all the potential of America, but he’s only 15 years old. And though we all know how his story is going to end, the movie ends while there’s still hope.