NEW YORK — “You have a very Jewish nose,” the seen-it-all talent agent says from the opposite side of a desk, obscured by cigarette smoke, before adding “which is becoming more popular.” This is one of a hundred small moments in “Licorice Pizza,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s time capsule of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s, that rings with authentic clarity.
Not that I was actually there myself. Nor was Anderson, really; he may have grown up in the nooks of Hollywood’s sprawl, but he was two years old when this film is set. But it is based on the tall tales of Gary Goetzman, a former child actor who grew to become one of Hollywood’s more powerful producers, and it’s loaded with entertainment in-jokes, terrific locations, and clever casting connections.
The film was released in New York and LA on November 26, and will go wide on December 25.
Gary is played by first-timer Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who worked with Anderson many times. We meet him at that awkward age when he’s too old for kid roles, but too young to be taken seriously. Still, he’s always hustling and scheming and, miraculously, managing to make his oddball ideas come to life.
His biggest dream, though, is to get the object of his desire, Alana, to fall in love with him. The problem is that she’s considerably older. The precise age difference is a little vague; Gary is mature for a teen and Alana is arguably stunted, but she’s definitely in her 20s while he’s still a kid. So it’s never going to happen, right? Well, the thing is they do actually fall in love, and it’s because of Anderson’s light touch and the nuanced performances of the two co-leads that it never feels weird.
Alana (she of the “Jewish nose”) is played by Alana Haim, also in her first feature film. It is not, however, the first time she has performed for Paul Thomas Anderson, as he has directed seven videos for the band Haim, which is made up of Alana and her two older sisters. One of these videos, you may recall, was shot at Canter’s, a famous Jewish deli in Los Angeles. (Anderson, by the way, is not Jewish, but his longtime partner and the mother of his four children, Maya Rudolph, who also has a small role in “Licorice Pizza,” is.)
Alana’s sisters (Este and Danielle) are in the movie, too, as are the real Haim parents, Moti and Donna. Moti, who was once a soccer player in Israel, and Donna, an art teacher whose former pupils include Paul Thomas Anderson, are presented here as fairly conservative middle-class parents who enjoy a nice Shabbat meal.
Indeed, it’s at one of these Friday night gatherings where we find one of the more entertaining Jewish moments in “Licorice Pizza.” Alana has just begun dating one of Gary’s (slightly) older actor colleagues, a kid who co-starred with Gary and “Lucy” (a stand-in for Lucille Ball) in a thinly veiled version of the corny late-’60s family picture “Yours, Mine, and Ours.” Though the boy is Jewish, he proudly boasts that he is an atheist, and refuses to take part in the blessing over the bread. He is promptly thrown out of the house, with Alana reminding him that as he’s already been circumcised, he may as well accept that he’s Jewish.
Alana’s Israeli heritage is also brought up during that scene with the talent agent. It isn’t that she is really desperate to become an actress, it’s just that it’s kinda what people in the area do, and, besides, she’s currently a little bit aimless. (For now, she’s working with Gary selling waterbeds; it’s a weird movie.)
Gary coaches her to just answer “yes” to any questions she’s asked. Can she ride a horse? Yes. Can she speak Spanish? Yes. Any other skills. “I know krav maga.” It’s explained that this is a martial art, but not “like karate,” more like “how I can kill you with a pen.” She knows it because her father was in the IDF. It’s a pretty funny scene.
Another of Gary and Alana’s escapades takes them to the mansion of Hollywood producer Jon Peters, presented here as a whacked-out, oversexed maniac (but funny!), played by Bradley Cooper. In real life Peters was involved, both romantically and in business, with Barbra Streisand, and some of the shenanigans of this sequence derive from him worrying about keeping her waiting at an appointment. There’s time, however, to stop everything to ensure that Gary correctly pronounces her last name (Strei-SAND, not Strei-ZAND).
If this movie sounds like just a collection of little scenes, well, that’s fair, but that’s what fondly recalling one’s youth is, no? It also means that if one scene doesn’t work for you so much, just sit tight, the next one is around the bend. There’s also a great soundtrack featuring Nina Simone, Taj Mahal, Todd Rundgren, and the greatest Jewish R&B act of the era, Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Alana Haim has received universal acclaim for her performance, and a lot of critics, myself included, have her pegged to receive a nomination for the Academy Award. (She’ll probably lose to Lady Gaga for “House of Gucci,” though, but once you see Lady Gaga in “House of Gucci” you’ll understand.) Nevertheless, Haim positively glows on the screen; she’s an absolute natural. What does this mean for her musical career? Well, considering how many times the name “Streisand” is used in the film, it’s good to remember one can be a successful recording artist and an actress when you’ve truly got it.
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