BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (OPINION) — “Licorice Pizza” is the kind of feature film that movie critics are not only supposed to love but regale it with the kind of kudos that make those who don’t understand its quirky approach feel embarrassed for their ignorance. Any film that pushes beyond the cinematic norms is worthy of note but sometimes the parts are more interesting than the whole.
One reason there is so much peer pressure to applaud this coming-of-age story is that it was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. He staked a claim as the master of film finesse with “There Will Be Blood,” ‘The Master” and “Punch-Drunk Love.”
Anderson takes a regular storyline and gives it more twists than a pretzel factory. The end result is a production that demands an appreciation for being so different.
Appreciation is something that must be earned.
In the case of “Licorice Pizza,” the foundation is the story of young love. It is a forbidden love but that taboo is just the start of Anderson’s manipulation of the tale.
Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is one of those students who wanders the halls of his high school barely getting noticed. It looks like another dull day in 1973 in the San Fernando Valley until Gary meets Alana Kane (Alan Haim), a photographer’s helper on the school’s picture day.
The pair then go on a series of adventures that would make Alice think Wonderland was not that strange. This is where Anderson dives deep into his unique style of storytelling. He takes the pair through a series of unrelated incidents that are only slightly weirdly connected.
One exit Anderson takes off the logic highway is having mega movie star Jack Holden (Sean Penn) connecting with Alana. Instead of the story going down a path of an older man seducing a younger woman, Anderson keeps the attraction very fluid. It is not clear whether Holden’s attention is of a sexual nature or just a Hollywood ego inflating like a blowfish.
The weirdest encounter for the pair comes when they have started a waterbed store. How these two jump in and out of businesses is never clearly explained but if there is one consistent with Anderson it is that clarity is not that important.
Gary and Alana deliver a waterbed to the home of Hollywood producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper). After stressing that he is dating Barbra Streisand, Peters launches into a journey that ends in a violent outburst connected to the gasoline shortage.
The segment is full of odd dialogue, weird behavior and disjointed actions. It is pure Anderson but when he is taken out of the equation, the sequence just looks like the kind of moments writers produce at 4 a.m. after two days of no sleep.
Straining to hold all of these jumble pieces together is the odd relationship between Gary and Alana. The fact she is in her 20s but looks to be 13 and he is supposed to be a teen but looks 30 makes the off limits connection between the pair seem forced and forbidden at the same time.
Haim definitely brings the kind of high energy to the role that has come from the likes of Goldie Hawn, Reese Witherspoon and Anne Hathaway over the years. It ends up being much ado about nothing as Anderson never finds the connection he needs to make the love story blossom or die.
Hoffman is at the other end of the energy scale. His generally lackluster performance does little to provide a romantic spark. The closest he comes to an emotional epiphany comes when there are a few jealous moments. It is really too little, too late.
It should be obvious from the name of the film that Anderson is more interested in things in life that clash more than those that connect. His “Licorice Pizza” is slice after slice of an odd idea that creates the kind of offering critics should like. Should like and do like are two very different things.
“Licorice Pizza” opens in theaters Dec. 24 if there is no disruption due to the new COVID surge.
1 1/2 stars
Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rated: R for drug use, sexual material, language
Running time: 133 minutes.