California Dreaming

Capturing Haim’s Ferocious Talent

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California Dreaming

Paul Thomas Anderson’s deft, droll “Licorice Pizza” has garnered awards group recognition and critical praise. Even more impressively, it has planted big grins on the faces of moviegoers, who file out of the multiplex convinced they’ve seen something really different — not to mention something true.

This quintessential American story, following young people at work and play in the San Fernando Valley circa 1973, might be mistaken for a conventional rom-com. Yet “Licorice Pizza” bears the lightness and sophistication of the most humane European comedies.

The film constantly subverts our genre expectations, mixing poignant encounters with knockabout comedy, and turning its back on conventional three-act structure and a single-protagonist “character arc.” Still, in the end “Licorice Pizza” feels complete and whole, its characters fully revealed with empathy and understanding.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson assembled a cast of emerging and established talent alike for the ‘70s-set “Licorice Pizza,” with Alana Haim’s breakout role supported by veteran actors such as Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper.

The craftsmanship attests to writer-director Anderson as a personal filmmaker at the height of his creative powers. Knowing his people, historical era and milieu, he insists on giving them all room to breathe, lending an air of documentary realism to the picture’s far-ranging sights and sounds. Events are presented in brief, even jaggedly impressionistic scenes — the way they occur in real life — with each sequence so confidently written that we never doubt the movie’s shape or purpose. “Licorice Pizza” reveals itself as a free-spirited work bursting with surprise yet executed with unerring control.

By Bob Verini

Paul Thomas Anderson brings the sophistication of the French New Wave to a tale of L.A. youth in the ’70s

The surprises begin at the jump, when our central characters meet in a queue for a high school yearbook shoot. Gary Valentine — winningly played by Cooper Hoffman — is hit by the thunderbolt at the sight of what he instantly clocks as “the woman I’m going to marry.” That’d be Alana Kane (a stunning debut for Alana Haim), who reflexively disdains this kid’s gaucheness, and yet there’s something there she can’t put her finger on but also can’t deny. An unlikely bond is established, which will evolve and deepen through the adventures that follow.

The theme of those adventures is the establishment of identity — the effort of youth to figure out who they are and what their purpose is. Each follows a separate road. Gary sees himself as “a born showman,” though after a couple of dud auditions, he happens upon the San Fernando Valley’s first-ever waterbed and transforms himself into a bedding entrepreneur. (Subsequently, acting on a rumor, he’ll morph into a pinball-parlor wizard.) For her part, Alana seeks succor in the arms of an older acting colleague of Gary’s; later, she will try to move to the grownups’ table by volunteering in the mayoral campaign of a closeted gay progressive.

In no case is there a plan. Events buffet them, and both journeys will be laced with disappointment. But somehow, at every turn, Gary and Alana are there for each other. At times they’re at loggerheads, though one is more often the other’s advocate or rescuer, whether standing by during a police false arrest, or picking up the pieces after a motorcycle fall. This movie knows quite well that relationships don’t happen the way they do in movies — organically and with a sense of inevitability. In life, they grow by fits and starts. You suddenly turn around and realize, hey, this person means something to me.

The journey toward self-definition is leavened by an awareness that you can’t live in and around Los Angeles without running into the rich and famous — usually unexpectedly, and often with hilarious, even mind-blowing results. Four eye-opening faux-celebrity encounters are spaced out over the course of the action, each adding a significant piece to the portrait the writer-director is intent on painting.

Early on, Gary makes a personal appearance with legendary comedienne “Lucy Doolittle,” known for a temper as fiery as her red hair. The terrors of sharing a stage with a superstar — known to every minor player on every film set — are vividly conveyed by Christine Ebersole, that expert, award-winning portrayer of bewigged divas.


Sometime later, Alana finds herself in a cocktail lounge with the star of “The Bridges of Toko-San,” hard-drinking “Jack Holden.” (That last name, and the just-slightly-off title, give away which leathery industry veteran Sean Penn is supposed to be.) Penn’s spot-on, boozily intense efforts at flirtation evoke what young women were prone to endure in pre-#MeToo social situations, while offering up a sharp contrast when the star’s carelessness allows Gary to rush to Alana’s aid.
Defender and victim switch places upon Gary’s encounter with Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters, that angry, bearded, ex-hairdresser turned film producer, then the BF of a world-renowned actress-chanteuse.

The celeb waterbed purchaser terrifies the young mattress king; when Gary takes revenge, Alana leaps to the rescue by steering his careening truck down the Hollywood Hills backwards, like a pro, in one of the most exciting sequences of Anderson’s career to date.
Back to the cocktail lounge for one last star appearance is Benny Safdie’s memorable turn as the mayoral candidate. His cynical attempt to use Alana as a “beard” is deeply poignant, shedding light on the oppressive mores of the ’70s. At the same time, the incident opens our eyes, and Alana’s too, to the sinister appeal of transitory fame and false values. After that night, she is primed to fall into the arms of someone whose interest in her is genuine. And there he is, running right toward her on Ventura Boulevard. Maybe not a relationship in the making; maybe just a friendship. But whatever it is, it feels right.

And so does the title feel right. It alludes, as has been widely noted, to a real-life chain of SoCal record stores in which Alana, Gary and their posse likely would have hung out. But look closer. Pizza is the quintessential teenager food, and licorice is a favorite candy with the hint of richness, darkness and danger. A licorice pizza may sound like lunacy, but who knows? It might just be tasty.

In that same vein, Anderson wants us to experience two young people’s efforts to take a big bite out of life at its craziest, but also at its most delicious. He invites them (and us) to take a chance, because that’s what makes living worthwhile. ★


This movie knows quite well that relationships don’t happen the way they do in movies. In life, they grow by fits and starts. You suddenly turn around and realize, hey, this person means something to me.

Capturing Haim’s
Ferocious Talent

Rachel Kushner: Alana, so Paul emailed you the script and you read it. What did you think of the script, and what did you think about Paul casting you as the star of his movie?

Alana Haim: It happened out of the blue. I got this email from Paul. I was in London, in front of St. Pancras train station. It was a very picturesque thing and I was sitting on this balcony watching the train station and I read the script five times that night. I fell in love with both Gary and Alana.

Kushner: Paul, what gave you the sense that Alana, who had no previous experience acting, would be such a powerful actor?

Paul Thomas Anderson: We’d had a relationship for a while. I’d worked with her, her band, her sisters, and it was an instinctual feeling more than anything else. I knew her ferociousness and her appetite, and her talent was incredibly large. When we started doing the tests, it was very clear to me that she was going to be just a great partner.

Teenaged entrepreneur Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and twentysomething Alana Kane (Alana Haim), form an unlikely friendship, one that evolves and deepens through the adventures that follow.

Kushner: You filmed along the covered walkways of Portola Middle School in Tarzana. The school was immediately recognizable.

Anderson: Well Portola’s where the story started. It was picture day, and all the kids were lined up on the blacktop and a junior high school kid was nagging this girl who worked for the picture company, clearly trying to get her phone number or something.

Kushner: An eighth-grade boy?

After a screening, director Paul Thomas Anderson and singer Alana Haim, who makes her acting debut in “Licorice Pizza,” sat for a Q&A with author Rachel Kushner. Below is an excerpt from that conversation.


Anderson: Yeah. It was just this kernel that had burned in my brain as this impossible premise and a really good one: What would happen if he actually talked her into showing up on a date and against all her better judgments, she turned up angry about turning up?

It was the tightest script that we’ve ever done, and we really just shot the story that we wrote. It’s hilarious to me that to achieve a looseness and simplicity in the film I was required to write the strongest and most surgically cut script.

Kushner: Cooper Hoffman’s so good.

Anderson: Cooper’s magnificent. I’ve known him since he was born. There’s a benefit of knowing somebody and what their strengths are, the energy that he can bring to it. He’s in many ways very similar to Gary in his contagiousness and his intelligence — and then he turns around and he farts and you realize he’s 16. It’s shocking how somebody can be so emotionally intelligent and then out to lunch. So, we try to capture that.

Kushner: His gaze is incredible. His face, in close-up. In fact, there are many faces in close-up.

Anderson: Well, when you got a face like that [Alana] and you got a face like my boy Cooper’s, if you’re doing your job as a director, you come in really close.


"Watch this quintessential scene from "Licorice Pizza" to get a glimpse into the unexpected-yet-burgeoning friendship between the film's main characters, Alana and Gary."

Kushner: Every face has the living imperfect complexity of real faces. How do you make people look so human and real?
Haim: I did my own hair and makeup — some of it is a little crazy, but in the end it was great. We all had zits; we were all in the [San Fernando] Valley sweating. I love the way it looks.

Kushner: There’s a lot of running. People are sweaty. I guess we all did run a lot as kids.

Anderson: In the Valley, you’re either on a bike or on a skateboard, or you are running, or hopefully, if you’re lucky, you find somebody with a car. That’s why I think the relationship between Gary and Alana works so well. She can drive, and the biggest threat that she could pose to him is “I’m not going to drive you anymore.” And the biggest stand that he can make for himself is to say, “That’s OK because I don’t need you to.” This is high stakes between these two.

Kushner: Alana, tell me about the driving sequence you do, in the most tense scene in the film. You’re behind the wheel of a manual transmission truck that has run out of gas, and you’re navigating in reverse down twisty roads. The truck has no power steering.

Haim: That is me, that is me driving. It took a lot of work to get there; I didn’t just walk into that truck, meet that truck and say, “I got you.” It took a lot of practice.

I vividly remember meeting the truck for the first time. I remember one of the stunt coordinators said, “You’re going to have a rough time putting this in reverse,” and I was determined. I [said to the truck]: “It’s you and me. We’re going to do this. I’m going to put you in reverse.” I remember the second that I put that clutch in, I put it in reverse, and I started going backwards, that was the day that I became Alana Kane. 

I was just so excited to be a part of this project that if Paul told me to skydive the next day I would’ve said, ‘Where’s my parachute?

— Alana Haim, Actor

Kushner: I have to ask about Bradley Cooper’s performance as Jon Peters. He just… detonates.

Anderson: I dreamt up this scenario that seemed to make sense never having met Jon Peters, only hearing his reputation and embellishing it and wildly making [him a stand-in] for any kind of outsized, larger-than-life movie producer in the 1970s.

Bradley’s a terrific actor, and I wanted to work with him for a long time and he decided to do it, which was great. I did go to Jon Peters and let him know. I said I’m going to make this movie and he said, “Terrific, I don’t really read anything so just tell me what it’s about.” I described the story to him, and he said, “This is a great story. Who’s playing me?” I said, “Bradley Cooper”; he thought that was great casting.

I had written that when [Peters] gets back in the car, he just screams at them for their incompetence. He said, “I wouldn’t do that.” I asked what would you do? He said he would try to seduce her. That is a much better help to the story.

Kushner: Alana, what was Paul like to work with?

Haim: I trusted Paul with everything, he trusted me. I was just so excited to be a part of this project that if Paul told me to skydive the next day I would’ve said, “Where’s my parachute?”

Anderson: You have to count on a moment where there’s a handoff, if she’s never done it before. So those first four or five days, she’s going to probably stick to the script. Although by day two, she was driving that truck, [and playing a scene] with Bradley Cooper, who starts improvising and trying to seduce her.

You hope there’s a certain moment where it’s not actually mine anymore, it’s hers. There was the most beautiful moment when that emerged. It’s when she’s walking with the boyfriend, Lance, out of the Shabbat dinner. I had written a kind of stinker of a scene that was a little flat, and she knew it. She said, “Can I do something?” Maybe she didn’t even ask, she just busted out of that door and said, “What does your penis look like?” I thought, “That’s my girl, that’s what I paid for.” ★

Alana Haim Talks Working with Paul Thomas Anderson and Bradley Cooper for her Acting Debut in “Licorice Pizza”
See Variety’s Jenelle Riley in conversation with ‘Licorice Pizza’ star Alana Haim


California Dreaming

Capturing Haim’s Ferocious Talent