Paul Thomas Anderson’s critically acclaimed Licorice Pizza is his response to Quentin Tarantino’s similarly nostalgic Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. As you may recall, I was a huge homer for Tarantino’s 2019 movie set in the Hollywood Hills and the adjoining suburban San Fernando Valley in 1969 because I was 11 then and thus appreciate Tarantino’s glamorized tour of old restaurants and drive-in movie theaters that I went to with my parents.
For sentimental reasons, I should be an even bigger fan of Anderson’s Licorice Pizza (named after a defunct Southern California record and video chain) because it’s about a 15-year-old Sherman Oaks boy in 1973, when I was a 15-year-old at school in Sherman Oaks. The movie even begins at Grant High School, the public school I would have attended if I’d not gone to a Catholic school.
Both Tarantino and Anderson grew up hanging around early SoCal video stores, QT in the South Bay, the seven-years-younger PTA in the North Hollywood region of the southeastern San Fernando Valley. (Just in case you have a hard time keeping straight the three directors named Anderson: Texan Wes Anderson makes whimsical confections like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Englishman Paul W.S. Anderson created the Resident Evil series.)
The Valley back then offered many opportunities for go-getters, while still being a cheap place to raise a family. Anderson’s new film visually emphasizes the colossal number of white kids who were getting free educations in the Los Angeles Unified School District back in 1973. (Today, less than 9 percent are white. But even then, diversity was our strength: My recollection from high school scuttlebutt is that Grant H.S. had the first of its annual Mexican vs. Armenian race riots in 1975.)
Anderson’s hero Gary, a child actor–turned–precocious waterbed entrepreneur (played by novice actor Cooper Hoffman, the teenage son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who made five movies with the director), decides at first sight that he’s going to marry a twentysomething woman (singer Alana Haim in her first acting role as well) who works for the photographer taking the yearbook portraits.
Gary’s romantic ambitions are silly, but, with his full-grown size, self-confident salesman’s spiel, and Holden Caulfield-like delight in postwar adult rituals such as having his own regular table at the fading Tail o’ the Cock restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, they aren’t wholly absurd.
Gary and Alana’s chaste relationship never really goes anywhere as Alana sets her sights on more age-appropriate men, such as the former child star who played Gary’s older brother in Lucille Ball’s Yours, Mine, and Ours, an alcoholic William Holden (played well by Sean Penn, who is now as wrinkly as a shar-pei), and our neighborhood’s old liberal Republican Los Angeles city councilman and perpetual mayoral candidate Joel Wachs.
Indeed, Anderson’s final plot twist for his heroine is a local legend I first heard decades ago about the big sister of a friend in my Boy Scout troop and the highly personal extra duties she had to take on when she worked for Wachs, who was then viewed as the most puzzlingly eligible bachelor in local politics.
While Alana doesn’t take young Gary seriously as boyfriend material, she finds herself dragged into chauffeuring the burgeoning businessman around (because he’s too young to drive, even in the safety-unconscious 1970s) as he hops on the waterbed fad and uses inside information from the idealistic councilman to open the Valley’s first legalized pinball parlor.