The nature of Gary and Alana’s relationship has rankled for some viewers and critics, but PTA papers over it by psychologically aging Gary up and Alana down. Cherubic and lightly-pimpled, Hoffman looks like the kid he is but carries himself as a young professional, while Alana’s full-grown body lashes out in tantrums and angry outbursts. Licorice Pizza is also a surprisingly chaste film from a director who isn’t afraid of nudity and adult material. A director given to taboo sexuality like Louis Malle might’ve taken things in a different direction, but the age difference and the provocative nature of it isn’t what PTA is most interested in. The most important part of Licorice Pizza is conveying that Alana would stick around with Gary, his couple of teen friends, and his younger brother Greg (Milo Herschlag), and the film succeeds through Hoffman’s intriguing self-confidence and his boyish charms. Licorice Pizza puts Alana and Gary alongside and opposite dozens of characters, and Alana is constantly disappointed by them in a way that she’s not with Gary, and before long, their being together in any context ceases to raise any eyebrows and becomes the most natural thing in the world.
That’s not to say the film desexualizes Gary. The film laughs and marvels at a 15/16 year old kid selling waterbeds or talking with adults like he’s a peer, but it never forgets that he’s as young as he is. Gary’s not above horny teenagerdom. A standout scene finds him lying next to a passed-out Alana on a waterbed. With the lighting casting their hands as shadows against the underlit bed and Paul McCartney’s Let Me Role It blaring on the soundtrack, Gary edges a finger towards Alana’s hand and makes contact. A cute scene turns briefly sinister as Gary moves to cop an unconscious feel before stopping and pulling back. It’s an important inclusion that allows Gary to consider the bad thing and stop himself, as opposed to so many other male characters who charge right into the bad thing with no consideration. He's also given to impotently guard Alana’s ‘virtue,’ giving her looks when she says she’s okay with nudity during an acting interview and criticizing her for doing sales calls in too sexy a fashion. That he keeps doing things like this lowers his stature while also giving Alana frequent and hilarious opportunities to taunt him for his misplaced jealousy.
There are few, if any, actors who would turn down an opportunity to work with PTA. He’s liked to work with a lot of the same people over the years, but here, he opens up his stable doors to lots of new faces. Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper both have memorable roles, with the former as a suave but perpetually drunk Jack Holden (based on actor William Holden) and the latter as a deranged and lecherous Jon Peters (real life producer/hairstylist and 70’s boyfriend of Barbra Streisand). Skyler Gisondo plays another actor, a rival of Gary’s, and a brief love interest for Alana, before she firmly kicks him to the curb for being too honest at a Kane family dinner. Character actor Harriett Sansom Harris experiences a breakout role in her late 60’s as a casting agent whose every line delivery is both unexpected and exactly right. Benny Safdie plays a candidate for local office who gets the film’s most serious and heartfelt scene opposite an excellent Joseph Cross. Lastly, John Michael Higgins plays a restauranteur, based off a real person, who’s generated controversy for the exaggerated Japanese accent he affects when talking to a series of Japanese wives. The oblivious quality that Higgins has honed by working with people like Christopher Guest is well-suited here as his character is one more useless man unwittingly propped up by women he doesn’t appreciate.
As memorable as the supporting cast is, especially Sansom Harris and Cooper, the film belongs to Haim and Hoffman. Neither have extensive acting resumes, but both seem born for these roles. Haim, long accustomed to stardom thanks to her and her sisters’ titular band, holds focus like she’s been acting forever. Alana’s uncertainty about her life often makes her into a reactive character, and watching Haim process new developments with rage or humility or righteousness or a dozen other emotions makes her and Gary’s disjointed adventures a pleasure to watch, throughline or not. As the son of frequent PTA collaborator Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Hoffman cannot help but bring a bittersweet quality to the film. Shades of the father can occasionally be seen in the son, but Gary is neither an instance of stunt casting nor a self-conscious impression. Hoffman brings pure charisma to the role, a quality that his dad possessed but rarely this distilled. Gary is credibly carrying off all these interests and larks, operating in the adult world that he doesn’t belong in through force of will. If Alana is the audience surrogate, both she and the viewer have to be compelled by Gary, and Hoffman ensures that’s an easy ask.
PTA no longer needs to establish his bona fides as a director. Licorice Pizza has the expected establishing and tracking shots that he’s mastered, and they do the usual job of guiding the viewer through an everyday venue that is nonetheless made to feel like the center of the universe. The repeated visual motif he uses here is Gary or Alana running, oftentimes towards each other. This sometimes gets used to demonstrate teenage freedom and abandon, like when Gary and Greg run through gas lines like they’re taunting the drivers stuck waiting for their turn at the pump, but it’s mostly an expression of urgency and desperation. Film has been employing characters running into each other’s arms for so long that it’s a cliché for spoof movies, but PTA and his cast make the trope feel brand new. Gary and Alana don’t know they’re being hacky when they’re running towards each other. They only know their destination has briefly become the most important thing in the world. Licorice Pizza isn’t PTA’s own life story, but it does capture a feeling of possibility that he likely had when he was Gary’s age, like he’s inventing the world over again without knowing there’s nothing new under the sun. Auteurs like him put the lie to that adage, or at least make the viewer briefly forget it. A-