Casting two people who’ve never been in a movie before – let alone ever acted professionally – as your leads is a pretty spicy move, but Paul Thomas Anderson has been making spicy moves for decades now. Even younger than Licorice Pizza’s downright radiant Alana Haim (yes, that Alana Haim), when he broke through with his 1997 rollicking porno-comedy Boogie Nights, the somewhat more wholesome Licorice Pizza sees PTA and his reels of vintage 35mm film freewheeling through the very same glowing San Fernando Valley streets as stalked by Dirk Diggler and making fully-fledged stars out of both Haim and her dazzling co-star, Cooper Hoffman.
Though he’d managed to pull himself away from suburban California for the London-set Oscar bait that was Phantom Thread, those long stretches of sunshine-kissed concrete turn out to the be the perfect backdrop for the story of Hoffman‘s Gary Valentine, a sassy 15-year-old child star on the make who develops an almighty crush on Haim’s wide-eyed Alana Kane, who’s a decade older than him and aimlessly drifting through life.
Set against the fading embers of Hollywood’s golden era, Gary has acquired himself a c-list level of fame thanks to a sitcom role with a wilful Lucille Ball-a-like star. Despite the slightly icky age difference, Alana is drawn to the magnetic Gary and the pair end up pals and set about a series of madcap schemes together, including running a waterbed company, which leads to one of the many ingenious cameos that are studded throughout the film’s two hour run time. A gakked-up ego in a shagger’s white suit who can’t stop banging on about how his girlfriend is Barbra Streisand, Bradley Cooper’s wildly entertaining movie producer Jon Peters is matched only by Tom Waits’ barfly film director Rex Blau and Sean Penn’s pervy and past-his-sell-by-date actor Jack Holden, all of whom manage to take advantage of and belittle the eager-to-impress Kane in their own creepy ways. They’re not the only guest stars – fans of Haim the band will be heartened to see turns from Alana’s sisters Este and Danielle, as well as the siblings’ real life parents, who play her wisecracking family.
To the smitten Gary, Alana might seem like the pinnacle of sophistication, but in reality she has just as little of a clue about life as him, only with slightly less of a front than him. The pair end up in and out of each other’s lives, but shine brightest when sharing the screen, bouncing off each other in one of the classic 1930s screwball comedies.
Though Hoffman’s Hollywood pedigree is strong (he’s the son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) that fact that he seems to have sprung from nowhere lends his portrayal of the precious Gary a heavy layer of authenticity. To the viewer, Cooper is Gary and it’s also surprisingly easy to separate Alana Haim the rock star from Alana Haim the movie star. With newcomers like this, who needs pros?
- Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
- Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Tom Waits
- Release date: November 26, 2021 (US), January 7, 2022 (UK cinemas)