There is no better stunt casting writer than Paul Thomas Anderson, a director with such Catholic taste in acting, such an aversion to predictability, and such an astounding insight into what an underrated minor actor or critically derided comedian or action star is up to Stony Face might be able to regularly put casts together that sound like jokes until you actually see the movie. Yes, he loves the greats, the Daniel Day Lewises and the Philip Seymour Hoffmans, but what Anderson does better than anyone is drawing amazing feats from unexpected sources. Who else would have looked at Tom Cruise, the leading man of a leading man with the whitest teeth and most expressionless gaze of any ’90s box office, and cast him in a supporting role as a slimy, damaged pickup artist? Who else could have pulled Vicky Krieps out of the student film group in Bumfuck, Luxembourg, and entrusted her to subjugate Day-Lewis at his last film appearance? Who else would have cast Adam Sandler in a facsimile of the same role he always plays – a clumsy man turned romantic hero – and yet thought of doing it well?
In Licorice Pizza, Anderson’s latest film, the reveal is Alana Haim. Known as one-third of the pop-rock family band Haim, she’s intoxicating when Alana Kane, a 25-year-old aimless fireworker who falls in love with the film’s teenage other lead actor, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman).
Alana Haim (left) as Alana Kane and Cooper Hoffman at Gary Valentine’s in Licorice Pizza. Film still with kind permission of Paul Thomas Anderson / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Licorice Pizza is set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973 and is the lightest, silliest film Anderson has made in years. It’s a casual, revealing coming-of-age dramedy about puppy love that unfolds in a series of crazy set pieces. (A friend of mine described it as “the best Richard Linklater movie Richard Linklater never made.”) Gary, an enterprising 15-year-old emerging from the child star, discovers Alana, who on photo day at his high school as Photographer assistant works and is immediately beaten. She reacts as one would expect but still agrees to have dinner with him. Remarkably, Haim sells Alana on the trip: she ends up as Gary’s chaperone on a trip to New York and later follows him to the waterbed store. “Do you think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his friends all the time?” She growls while smoking a joint with her sister. “I think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends all the time.”
Hoffman is likely a greasy teenager who clearly considers himself an adult, although he is unlikely to make any comparisons to his late, brilliant father, Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, Haim makes the film really strong. She is wonderfully lively and charismatic, delivers lines with a buzzing, nasal emptiness or a concert-rehearsed roar that dominates authority. She lives the unpredictability of the figure with verve. “Are you circumcised? Then you’re a bloody Jew!” She yells, interrogating a date who insulted their religious parents by declaring themselves an atheist at the Shabbat dinner. “Fuck off, teenagers!” She cries as she Pushing through a crowd, indulging in a temporary nuisance as she speeds down a sidewalk in one of the film’s many chases. She spat out jokes like a wilder Rosalind Russell. She scoffs, works, and makes the contradictions of her character appear natural and alive. It’s incredible that this is her first film role.
Licorice pizza. Film still with kind permission of Melinda Sue Gordon / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
It’s also incredible that she can do such an impressive job with such a borderline incoherent character. I’m sorry, but it has to be admitted: Any 25-year-old woman who is even considering dating a 15-year-old boy has worms in her brain. Alana Kane is a curious creation, fascinating to look at, but strangely flat. While the film hints at a mid-20s malaise that could explain her inner workings – she lives with her haughty parents and tries out a number of crappy jobs – she ends up behaving the way Gary would like, far more often than not their stinkiness suggests you should. When Gary gets mad at her for saying she would do nudity on screen when meeting a talent agent and asks why she would show her boobs to the world but not him, she responds by showing him her boobs shows. What?
But it’s hard to be morally upset about the age difference at the center of the film, also because Licorice Pizza feels as naked as a nostalgic reinterpretation of an adolescent boy’s fantasy. It’s a dreamy movie, chaste and sunlit, and even when Alana Haim steals the show, the movie stays best aligned with Gary’s perspective.
Sounds like range? Paul Thomas Anderson, in a recent interview with the New York Times, told a story about his intense childhood in his elementary school art teacher, a woman with “long, beautiful, flowing brown hair – who looked just like Alana.” This art teacher – as Anderson discovered when he first met Alana Haim in 2012 – was none other than Haim’s mother.
Personally, I think Anderson should be applauded. It’s not often that a man spends $ 40 million to revive the corpse of his teenage fantasies. And even more rarely do these fantasies merge into a decent film.
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