Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza ★★★★★

Review by David Ehrlich

Gary Valentine is 15 going on 30, Alana Kane is “25” but in air quotes that basically allow her to be whatever it might say on her eventual dream ticket out of Encino, and they first cross paths on a pale 1973 morning in the San Fernando Valley at a strange moment in history when Old Hollywood and New Hollywood have started to overlap. Bing Crosby is still alive even though Jim Morrison is already dead, and it feels like everyone is more or less the same age because no one really knows what time actually means anymore.

They meet on yearbook portrait day at the local high school, and Alana — working as an assistant for the handsy photographer — walks up to Gary with a mirror in her hands, only to find that this pimple-faced hustler is less concerned with last looks than he is with first impressions. Gary starts hitting on Alana with the unslakable thirst of a teenage boy and the empty courage of someone who doesn’t think anyone will ever take him seriously. He spits a lot of motor-mouthed game about being a child actor, but flirts as if he’s being interviewed by William F. Buckley on an episode of “Firing Line” (“There’s too much reality in pictures now” is but one choice line in a marathon-length meet-cute throbbing with electric banter).

When Alana calls him out (“you’re 12,” she says, nailing the age he plays on TV), Gary responds by asking her to meet him for a drink later. Like so much of the whirlwind friendship that follows — and like almost every scene of the spectacular, intoxicating, and thoroughly hilarious film that watches along — it’s hard to tell if it’s a date or a dare.

Maybe Gary is just throwing paint at the wall like he always does when trying to sell people on the idea of himself, which is all of the time, or maybe some part of him can already sense that Alana will “buy” whatever male bullshit is flung her way because this ultra-capable battering ram of a woman has been conditioned to believe that her currency isn’t good for anything else. When she actually shows up at Tail o’ the Cock that night, it’s as if Gary and Alana are both calling each other’s bluff. And so begins the most honest relationship that either of them have ever had.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s holyfuckingshitIlovemovies-great “Licorice Pizza” is undeniably a coming-of-age movie — his first clear-cut contribution to a genre defined by the kind of pathological self-invention and animalistic need for acceptance that have also fueled each of his eight previous features — but it’s not really about growing up. For one thing, both of its leads have already grown up (or at least aggressively sideways) to a certain extent, and just need someone to recognize the people they’ve become in the process. For another, there’s always been a terminally childish quality to even Anderson’s oldest characters.