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Film review: “Licorice Pizza” features promising debuts and graceful California nostalgia

After audiences on the coasts could go see it for months, one of the best films of 2021 has finally come to our neck of the woods in the Midwest.

Paul Thomas Anderson, who has written and directed some of the greatest films of the last 30 years, brings forth his ninth film, “Licorice Pizza”: a coming-of-age dramedy that has romance, show biz and plenty of laughs.

The year is 1973. A crook is president, and a gas crisis is about to hit the Valley.

Alana Haim (of the incredible band HAIM) plays Alana Kane, a 25-year-old stuck in the limbo of young adulthood.

Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) plays Gary Valentine, an ambitious youngster with an open crush on Alana. He’s 15 and an actor who always seems to have a foot in every door. Despite his wise-for-his-age smooth talking, he cannot crack Alana, “the girl of his dreams.”

The duo, along with the plot, meanders up and down the streets of the San Fernando Valley, exploring get-rich-quick schemes and meeting eccentric famous people. I think being between the two ages allowed for me to appreciate both perspectives, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Seeing a double debut of the two main actors in a popular movie is something to marvel at. Haim is the real star, though, who, without any other acting credits, nails subtlety.

Appearances by Tom Waits, Sean Penn and especially Bradley Cooper made me want to turn around and head right back into the theater. There are just so many one-off blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em gems in this movie to only view once.

The soundtrack, which features songs from David Bowie, Wings, Donovan, Taj Mahal and many more, once again shows that Anderson is nothing short of a master at dropping the needle on some perfect 70s music (see “Inherent Vice,” 2014).

A few times, the film is unclear when a vignette ends and the next begins, which may leave some audience members disoriented. The film is a lot like Gary Valentine — it takes a little getting used to before you realize how charmed you’re getting.

Final verdict: if you have no problem watching characters interact with the world around them without a concrete plot, this is a good film for you. There are plenty of loose ends, but I think that is a reflection of coming of age in real life — not everything needs a purpose or to make sense.

“Licorice Pizza” is an immersive movie that accurately shows the ebbs and flows of emotion and attraction. While Anderson has made films that tower over this one, he delivered one of the best films of the 2020s so far.

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