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That '70s Flick

Paul Thomas Anderson/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

Licorice Pizza (2021)

Essentially Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on “Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood,” “Licorice Pizza” is ’70s nostalgia peppered with sketchy Tinseltown lore and auteurist details variously recalling “Boogie Nights,” “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Inherent Vice,” revolving around the puppy love between 16-year-old child star Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour) and arrested-developed 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the namesake band) in the 1973 San Fernando Valley.

The premise, though statutorily icky if you really think about it, is not entirely unrealistic for teenage Gary. The film offers a compelling rationale for Alana’s interest in him, as she longs for something greater than being the black sheep among three sisters who still live at home. She chaperons Gary to New York City for a TV taping and becomes acquainted with his costar Lance (Skyler Gisondo) on the return flight; but when she has Lance over to her very Jewish household for dinner, he declines to perform the challah brachot because he now identifies as atheist.

While immersed in Gary’s circle and helping out his water bed startup, Alana goes on her own audition and mingles with hotshot movie star Jack Holden (Sean Penn) and director Rex Blau (Tom Waits) before finding purpose volunteering at the mayoral campaign office of Los Angeles city councilman Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie, the filmmaker).

Mr. Anderson’s mix of real-life characters and biographical details is ever so amusing. The decision to cast celebrities such as Mr. Penn to play industry types against a cast of mostly unknowns is inspired. In addition to Mr. Wachs, Mr. Anderson gratuitously tosses in Fred Gwynne (John C. Reilly) in character as Herman Munster, as well as Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper, hilarious inside baseball with him playing Barbra Streisand’s ex after remaking “A Star Is Born”). Alana’s family members are played by Ms. Haim’s sisters-bandmates, Este and Danielle, and their parents, Moti and Donna, who are from the Valley and work as realtors just as their movie counterparts. During her audition, Alana blabbers about her father’s time in the Israeli army – and Moti Haim is indeed from Israel. The film also contemplates Este Haim working for the family business were she not in a band – fun stuff if you’re a fan.

Some think the film crosses a line with its portrayal of Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), the real-life owner of the Mikado Hotel, which boasts the Valley’s first Japanese restaurant. Here as a client of Gary’s public-relations specialist mother, Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), the fictionalized Jerry is first seen speaking to his wife, Mioko (Yumi Mizui), in horribly accented English while she replies in Japanese. He appears in a later scene with his new wife, Kimiko (Megumi Anjo), but converses with her in exactly the same manner as with his ex before finally allowing that he does not comprehend Japanese.

Mr. Anderson has so far given less than satisfactory explanations for his intentions with these scenes, but they aren’t racist like, say, the way “Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood” demeans Bruce Lee. The Japanese ladies have agency: Mioko checks Anita for opting to emphasize the restaurant waitstaff’s kimonos over the quality of the food, and she later divorces Jerry even though offscreen. The scenes aren’t making fun of them per se, but rather the men who exoticize and patronize them. We laugh at Jerry’s obtuse attempts to break down a language barrier through microaggressions, because people like him exist and they truly believe they are doing others a favor while being offensive.

The coming-of-age moment arrives when Councilman Wachs invites Alana for drinks after work; she perceives it as a romantic overture only to discover that he needs her cover to protect his political future as he is deeply closeted at that time. A few years after Gary and Alana’s fictional happy end would have taken place, Mr. Wachs in real life sponsored landmark legislation in 1981 barring job and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. The film doesn’t tell you that, but hopefully it makes you look that up.


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