Review: ‘Licorice Pizza’ recreates 1970s magic

Now and then, a movie paints such a detailed picture of the past that we feel transported in time.

Every moment in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” takes us back to the challenges of living in 1973, a year filled with tension across the country and oversized cars on the streets. As eyes focus on where to find gasoline to fill guzzling auto tanks, an enthusiastic 15-year-old high-school student considers how to navigate his personal and professional paths. How this ambitious teenager maneuvers through these daily choices gives this rich visual trip an emotional reason to travel. Say “yes” to Anderson’s invitation to relive such a refreshing state of mind.

Of course, Gary would be a special 15-year-old at any time. He is, at one moment, a former child television star trying to revitalize a slowing career, willing to say or do just about anything to secure a role. He is, within minutes, a would-be entrepreneur who starts a waterbed business with mixed results before he establishes a pinball arcade. When not worried about work, he is an enthusiastic romantic with eyes on Alana, a photographer’s assistant ten years his senior. And, as soon as they meet at his school’s photo day, their immediate connection initiates a relationship that neither knows precisely how to define.

Such everyday moments give Anderson the foundation to frame daily life in the San Fernando Valley as tensions rise in the Middle East and Richard Nixon tries to protect his presidency. In a series of episodes that explore his characters’ emotional layers, the filmmaker uses what could have happened at the time to challenge how Gary and Alana choose how to react. In one sequence, she becomes the target of an aging actor’s affection; in another, Alana experiences mixed feelings for a mayoral candidate. In the film’s most exaggerated episode, the two deliver a waterbed to Jon Peters, the former hairdresser best remembered for his involvement with Barbra Streisand. Anderson never suggests that any of this actually happened. He simply lets us imagine what if this blissfully artificial world is real.

For Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing Gary offers a breakthrough role. With a style all his own, the actor lets us into the young man’s ambitions and fears through a range of endearing facial and vocal expressions. Alana Haim, best known for her band Haim, creates a carefully modulated portrayal of Alana that delights in every frame. And Bradley Cooper, playing a broad caricature of Peter, steals each of his scenes as a man thrust into the limelight with little preparation.

The triumph of “Licorice Pizza” is how Anderson so deftly connects many moving pieces. Rather than feel stitched together, the film’s cohesive fabric makes us smile as we relive a time long gone by. As we close the holiday season, this an ideal film to celebrate what matters in an ever-changing world.

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Film Summary: Licorice Pizza

Content: High. Paul Thomas Anderson invites us to travel back in time to the life-changing moments of 1973.
Entertainment: High. Anderson creates a visual (as well as emotional) feast that satisfies our curiosity about two engaging personalities who wonder about each other.
Message: High. Without letting the film get too heavy, Anderson carefully stylizes the situations to remind us what matters as we navigate day-to-day life.
Relevance: High. Any chance to experience a filmmaker's rich visual creation is a delight.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older children, share your own memories of this moment in time.

 “Licorice Pizza” runs 2 hours and 13 minutes, is rated R for language, sexual material, some drug use and is showing in theaters.