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LICORICE PIZZA: 4 ½ STARS. “debut of two new, very promising actors.”

“Licorice Pizza,” the new slice-of-life drama from director Paul Thomas Anderson, and now playing in theatres, is a very specific movie. It transports us back in time to Los Angeles circa the 1970s. Nixon is president. In Hollywood the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant is the place to see and be seen and gas stations face country wide fuel shortages. But against that specific backdrop comes a story ripe with freewheeling charm, nostalgia and universal themes.

Cooper Hoffman, son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, is Gary Valentine, a cocky fifteen-year-old actor with a blossoming career and a back pocket filled with get rich quick schemes. At picture day at his high school he spots photographer’s assistant Alana (Alana Haim). She is ten years older than him, but he’s feeling lucky and asks her out on a date. She agrees, but says it isn’t a date, just dinner. He takes her to hotspot Tail o’ the Cock and at the end of the night tells her, “I’m not going to forget you. Just like you’re not going to forget me.”

It is the beginning of a mostly platonic relationship that sees them drift in and out of one another’s lives, start a water bed business and navigate maturity. “Maybe fate brought us together,” Gary says to her. “Our roads brought us here.”

“Licorice Pizza” (the name refers to a defunct Californian record store chain) isn’t a movie overly concerned with plot. Instead, it relies on the characters to keep things interesting.

Newcomers Hoffman and Haim, (she plays guitars and keyboards in the pop rock band Haim), do just that. Each are magnetic performers on their own, she is all glowering intensity, he’s got teenage swagger down to a tee—“I’m a showman,” he says, “it’s what I’m meant to do.”—but put them together and sparks fly. From their first exchange in the high school gym to the film’s closing moments they win us over. In the movie the characters experience the first blush of friendship and love. In the audience we get to experience another first, the debut of two new, very promising actors.

Later, after the film, I found myself daydreaming that perhaps we could revisit them every ten years or so à la the relationship trilogy “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight.”

Some old-timers get to strut their stuff as well. Sean Penn plays a riff on hard drinking actor William Holden with equal parts smarm and charm and Bradley Cooper pulls out all the stops to bring Hollywood hairdresser-turned-movie mogul Jon Peters to vivid, excessive life.

It is an evocative rendering of a specific time and place, but it doesn’t all sit right. In his recreation of the 1970s, director Paul Thomas Anderson includes two scenes featuring John Michael Higgins as Jerry Frick, owner of the San Fernando Valley’s first Japanese restaurant, The Mikado. In his two scenes he is seen speaking with an over-the-top, buffoonish Japanese accent in conversation with his Japanese wives, played by Yumi Mizui and Megumi Anjo. Both scenes stick out like sore thumbs. I imagine that they are meant to represent the causal racism of the time but they break the movie’s magical spell with cultural insensitivity that adds nothing, save for a cheap laugh, to the story.

“Licorice Pizza” is kind of flipping through a diary. Some details are intense, some glossed over, but everything is relevant to the experience being written about. Like diary entries, the movie is episodic. Each passing episode allows us to get to know Gary and Alana a bit better, and just as importantly, remind us what it means to be young and in love.

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