There is no better auteur of stunt casting than Paul Thomas Anderson, a director with such catholic tastes in performers, such aversion to predictability, and such startling insight into what an underappreciated bit-part player or critically derided comedian or stone-faced action star might be capable of that he regularly pulls together casts that sound like jokes until you actually see the movie. Yes, he loves the greats, the Daniel Day Lewises and the Philip Seymour Hoffmans, but what Anderson does better than anyone else is coax amazing performances out of unexpected sources. Who else would have looked at Tom Cruise, a leading man’s leading man with the whitest teeth and blankest stare of any ’90s box office draw, and cast him in a supporting role as a slimy, damaged pickup artist? Who else could have plucked Vicky Krieps out of the student film circuit in Bumfuck, Luxembourg, and trusted her to subjugate Day-Lewis in his final film appearance? Who else would have cast Adam Sandler in a facsimile of the same role he always plays—a bumbling manchild turned romantic hero—and yet thought to make it good?
In Licorice Pizza, Anderson’s newest film, the revelation is Alana Haim. Known as one third of the pop-rock family band Haim, she’s exhilarating as Alana Kane, a 25-year-old aimless firecracker the film’s adolescent other lead, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), falls in love with.
Set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973, Licorice Pizza is the lightest, goofiest movie Anderson has made in years. It’s a loose, free-wheeling coming-of-age dramedy about puppy love that unfolds in a series of zany set pieces. (A friend of mine described it as “the best Richard Linklater movie Richard Linklater never made.”) Gary, an enterprising 15 year old aging out of child stardom, spots Alana working as a photographer’s assistant on picture day at his high school and is immediately smitten. She reacts about how you would expect, but nevertheless agrees to have dinner with him. Remarkably, Haim sells Alana as along for the ride: she ends up as Gary’s chaperone on a trip to New York, and later follows him into the waterbed business. “Do you think it’s weird I hang out with Gary and his friends all the time?” she drones while smoking a joint with her sister. “I think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends all the time.”
Hoffman is likeably greasy as the kind of teenager who clearly believes he’s an adult, although he’s unlikely to generate any comparisons to his late, brilliant father, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Haim, though, really powers the movie. She’s wonderfully vivid and charismatic, delivering lines with a buzzy, nasal deadpan or else a concert-trained bellow that commands authority. She inhabits the character’s unpredictability with verve. “Are you circumcised? Then you’re a fucking Jew!” she shouts, interrogating a date who has offended her religious parents by proclaiming himself an atheist at Shabbat dinner. “Fuck off, teenagers!” she cries while pushing through a throng, utterly committed to a passing moment of annoyance as she races down a sidewalk in one of the film’s many chase scenes. She spits out quips like a more ferocious Rosalind Russell. She taunts, toils, and makes her character’s contradictions seem natural and alive. It’s incredible that this is her first film role.
It’s also incredible that she’s able to do such impressive work with such a borderline incoherent character. I’m sorry, but it must be acknowledged: any 25-year-old woman who would even contemplate dating a 15-year-old boy has worms in her brain. Alana Kane is a curious creation, mesmerizing to watch but strangely flat. While the film gestures at a mid-20s malaise that might explain her inner life—she lives with her overbearing parents and dabbles in a series of shitty jobs—she ultimately behaves the way Gary wants her to behave, far more often than her prickliness suggests she should. When Gary gets mad at her for saying she would do onscreen nudity at a meeting with a talent agent, asking why she would show the world her boobs but not show him, she responds by showing him her boobs. What?
But it’s hard to get too morally outraged about the age gap at the center of the movie, in part because Licorice Pizza feels so nakedly like a nostalgic reimagining of an adolescent boy’s fantasy. It’s a dreamy movie, chaste and sun-soaked, and even as Alana Haim steals the show the film remains most aligned with Gary’s perspective.
Sound like a reach? Paul Thomas Anderson recently told a story in an interview with the New York Times about his intense childhood crush on his elementary school art teacher, a woman with “long, beautiful, flowing brown hair—who looked exactly like Alana.” This art teacher—as Anderson discovered when he first met Alana Haim in 2012—was none other than Haim’s mother.
Personally, I think Anderson should be applauded. It’s not often that a man gets to spend $40 million reanimating the corpse of his preteen fantasies. And it’s even rarer that those fantasies coalesce into a decent movie.