Licorice Pizza is the most delightful movie of the year. A masterful director leads two strong new actors through Southern California in 1973. They hatch schemes, wreak havoc, making each other laugh and making each other jealous.
Cooper Hoffman (son of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman) stars as Gary, a smart-ass teen actor who's never met a person he can't charm. Alana Haim (drummer in the great band Haim) plays Alana, the dazed and confused woman he latches onto. They meet at Picture Day at Gary's school, and they'll find themselves entangled in each other's lives whether they like it or not. (Much has been made of the characters' 10-year age gap. While there may be something to discuss there, ignore anyone who's outright dismissive or irate without engaging with the film.)
There's little plot to speak of in Licorice Pizza. It's more of a series of vignettes, with some stories so richly detailed that they had to be based on real life. (Much of the film is based on the experiences of producer Gary Goetzman and Anderson himself, who grew up in the industry.) But each scene is so vibrant, with actors who look like real people and not movie stars. It ultimately doesn't matter that this is the director's most lackadaisical film.
About the only thing that didn't work and didn't put a big smile on my face are two unfortunate and unnecessary scenes with John Michael Higgins. The veteran character actor has stolen scenes and split my sides in films like Best in Show and Pitch Perfect. But here he plays a racist restaurateur, who speaks to his Japanese wives in an exaggerated accent. The joke, I suppose, is about what a buffoon this guy is. But it's not funny, and several Asian-American critics have rightly taken offense. It adds absolutely nothing to the experience.
But those are brief scenes. Many other actors make much better impressions in similarly limited screen time. Christine Ebersole is absolutely hilarious as a Lucille Ball stand-in, whose backstage tirade makes for one of the funniest scenes in the film. Sean Penn and Tom Waits are dynamite as two old drunks who think nothing of re-staging a motorcycle stunt on a golf course. And of course Bradley Cooper shows up as Jon Peters, the real-life hairdresser, Casanova and future film producer. His performance is absolutely wild, dialed up to 10 from his first appearance. Even when he's not the focus, he's in the background, drawing your eye.
It's occasionally overstuffed, but here's so much to love in Licorice Pizza that even an occasional sour taste can't ruin the whole pie.