Acolytes of PTA beware: there be spoilers.
There is a barely hidden secret at the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, and it’s just behind the fig-leaf of that tender coming-of-age love story, as whacky as it may be, that we are supposed to take as the main story. It’s that both Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffmann) know pretty well what they want to do with their lives. That might come to us as a surprise, and to them as well, and their next few months are not without pitfalls and mayor changes, but for all their uncertainty, they have their plans and ideas. And if that includes their gravitating towards each other, then yay, all the better.
Chances are not that good at the outset. Gary is pretty sure that this is the girl he is going to marry – and if that was not a PTA movie, I would have groaned at the cliché. Alana, meanwhile, is older than Gary and can see through his puppy-eyed act, but just because she knows what he wants with her doesn’t mean she is not affected by it. She can’t believe she turns up to their first date. But look at her when she sees Gary on stage for the first time, in his pyjamas, the tallest and oldest in a bunch of kids singing and dancing on stage; she might not believe him that he wants to be an actor, a showman, but she is smitten with him right there and then because he tells her the unlikely truth.
And while they try to drive each other mad with jealousy, it means that they feel something for each other. There are so many scenes in PTA’s movies where people yell at each other over the phone; Licorice Pizza brings you the one call where not a single word is being said, but both Gary and Alana and everyone in the audience know what that phone call is about. Message sent, message received. It’s an electrifying moment. Alana and Gary are not immediately endearing to us, but the point is that they find something in each other to like, and the movie goes from there.
And they have a mind for business. Gary immediately quits his acting job and starts selling waterbeds; Alana can see that he has a great idea and joins him, but they also know when their lucky break is over when they meet Jon Peters and his womanizing antics; Alana decides to join an electoral campaign while Gary opens a pinball emporium. Both are good and successful at what they do, and if that means being apart for a time, then so be it.
Of course the movie is full of great needle drops; there are many PTA moments where the camera follows either Alana or Gary or both, walking or running. When Gary gets arrested on some misunderstood marijuana charge, who is there to get him out of the police station? Who drives a truck that’s running on empty through L.A. with apparently no CGI involved? Who seduces a guy into buying a waterbed over the phone? Yeah, you guessed it. No wonder Gary is helplessly entangled into her charms. Give them time, and they will grow towards each other even more.