Producers: Sara Murphy, Adam Somner and Paul Thomas Anderson   Director: Paul Thomas Anderson   Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson   Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Skyler Gisondo, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, John Michael Higgins, Christine Ebersole, Harriet Sansom Harris, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Ryan Heffington, Nate Mann, Benny Safdie, Joseph Cross, Danielle Haim, Este Haim, Moti Haim, Donna Haim, Isabelle Kusman, Destry Allyn Spielberg, George DiCaprio, Iyana Halley, Ray Chase, Emma Dumont, Yumi Mizui, Megumi Anjo, Maya Rudolph, Tim Conway Jr., Griff Giacchino, James Kelley, Will Angarola, Emily Althaus and Milo Herschlag   Distributor: United Artists/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Grade: C

Despite loads of digressions and cadenzas, Paul Thomas Anderson’s overlong nostalgia trip is basically the familiar boy-meets-girl-cute- but-they-stay-apart-for-plot-reasons-before-finally-running-into-each-other’s-arms story.  The distinctive element of the episodic comedy-drama—titled after a chain of Los Angeles record stores—is its depiction of California’s San Fernando Valley in the early seventies, where the narrative is set; but while that lends color to the picture, it doesn’t make the movie any more engaging for someone who wasn’t there at the time and won’t appreciate the numerous allusions to people and events strewn throughout it.  Aiming for something blithe and effervescent but with a nugget of emotion at the core, Anderson has instead produced a mangy, ragged ode to his youthful dreams and cherished memories.

Nor are the lead characters particularly charming, though they’re meant to be.  The guy is Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour), a wildly voluble fifteen-year old hustler who, in 1973, comes on to Alana Kane (Alana Haim), ten years older than he, when she’s making a few bucks as an assistant to the photographer taking his school pictures.  She declines his insistence that she go out with him on a date, but accepts a dinner invitation, and a chance to watch him act as part of the ensemble of kids on a show with grande dame Lucy Doolittle (Christine Ebersole) that’s rather like “The Brady Bunch” squared.  But his shenanigans on the set get him fired, beginning the collapse of his acting career (a later episode with a legendary agent played by Harriet Sansom Harris provides evidence of that).

But always angling for other opportunities, Gary banks on a partnership in a Japanese restaurant run by Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), opens up an emporium to sell new-fangled waterbeds, and enters the arcade market when pin-ball machines become legal in the state.  He always sees himself as smart enough to recognize the “next big thing” and ready to take advantage of it. 

Through all of his schemes Alana remains a friend and helper—as when he’s abruptly dragged off by the cops on suspicion of murder (a sequence that comes out of nowhere and ends with a shrug), but most notably in an extended episode about his delivery of a waterbed to wacked-out Hollywood producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) during a gasoline shortage, which goes riotously wrong. 

But she keeps her distance romantically; at one point she dates another actor, Lance (Skyler Gisondo), until he admits he’s renounced his Jewish heritage at a dinner with her very traditional family (played by Haim’s actual parents and siblings), and later on she’ll spend an evening with aging star Jack Holden (Sean Penn) until it’s disrupted by a wild director (Tom Waits).  She also lends a hand to the long-shot progressive mayoral campaign of Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), a closeted gay man who at one point asks her to pretend to be the girlfriend of his partner to divert the attention of the press.  Regardless, Gary remains devoted and protective, even as he suffers watching jealously from the sidelines, and it’s in the aftermath of the Holden debacle that he and Alana finally do the clichéd “love at last” run familiar from so many rom-coms of past decades and now reliably ripe for parody. 

There are quite a few amusing moments scattered throughout “Licorice Pizza”—the sequence with Harris is certainly funny even if it is an extraneous vaudeville routine, and that with Cooper, as outlandishly broad here as he is restrained in “Nightmare Alley,” contains quite a few laughs, as well as some exciting footage with a runaway truck.  But even it is overextended, and elsewhere, as in the protracted, misjudged finale with Penn and Waits (both working way too hard to put the material across), even smiles are hard to come by; one is more likely to feel discomfort.  (Certainly that’s intended to be how viewers will take Higgins’ crudely “Japanese” English routine as Frick.) 

That also might be true of your reaction to the central relationship.  Anderson is very quick to drop the issue of the age difference between Gary and Alana, of course—understandably, given that Valentine’s a minor.  But setting that aside, though both Hoffman and Haim deliver pretty remarkable performances for newcomers, the characters they’re playing aren’t all that likable.  Gary’s meant, one supposes, to be ingratiatingly pushy, but frequently comes across as simply obnoxious, while Alana’s emotional shifts are apparently intended to indicate depth, but can be read as mere flightiness.  Does their final embrace really represent emotional closure of the sort we’re primed to expect, or is it just another blip in the roller-coaster relationship they’ve had for more than two hours, which might resume after the credits roll? Who can say?

The large supporting cast, an eclectic collection of pros and amateurs, add strong dashes of personality to the ensembles, while the technical crew (Michael Bauman, who collaborated with Anderson on the cinematography, production designer Florencia Martin, costumer Mark Bridges and editor Andy Jurgensen) is adept at creating the ambience not only of the time and place, but the feel of movies from the seventies as well.  The same can be said of Jonny Greenwood’s score, augmented of course with pop tracks from the period.

One can appreciate Anderson’s inclination to escape from the rigors of making films like “There Will Be Blood” or “Phantom Thread” with a more easygoing, personal divertissement like this.  But “Licorice Pizza” might have been more pleasurable for him to make than it will be for many of us to watch.