Grade:  C+/B-
Rated R

Sometimes hype can be the kiss of death. It was for me, as far as Licorice Pizza was concerned. All the way through this self-consciously quirky film from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), I kept getting wannabe Almost Famous vibes but found myself thinking, when is this going to end?

That’s not the reaction I expected, given that the coming-of-age film Licorice Pizza, even at a sprawling 133 minutes, was the darling of the 2022 awards season. It earned Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and Screenplay and won Best Screenplay at the BAFTAs. Licorice Pizza was also touted as the first MGM picture produced and distributed since Rain Man to earn a BP Oscar nod. Smaller film critics associations loved it too, but I kept wondering if maybe that was proof of how starved everyone has been for another small pebble to make a big splash, as Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, and Juno did.

I didn’t find myself as engaged by the characters or their situation as I wanted to be, and the quirkiness level was ramped up so high that it all felt absolutely contrived. As for the plot, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite and Juno all had strong narrative trajectories, by comparison. Licorice Pizza felt meandering, but not in a way that seemed terribly organic. Small annoyances kept popping up, like why was one character arrested but then quickly released? Why was one character’s world so random? And why wasn’t the developing “love” more perceptible in its development?

Ninety-one percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics loved the film, as did critics on the aggregate site Metacritic, which scored it a 90 out of 100. In other words, just about every critic out there says I’m wrong. If I am, so is the rest of my family, who also wanted more than the quirkiness Licorice Pizza had to offer. More humor, maybe. Or more believable attraction. Or a plot that seemed less aimless. Or a more tightly edited story.

On high school picture day in the San Fernando Valley, 1973, a child actor named Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) takes a shine to a young woman (Alana Haim as Alana) helping the photographer. He asks her out. For whatever reason—and here’s the first unrealistic, unbelievable no-sale—she decides to show up. They continue to see each other, though he’s 15 and she’s 25. But they see each other in his world, not hers. She even accompanies him as his “guardian” on an acting assignment. Somehow waterbeds enter into the picture (because they were briefly big in the ‘70s?) and somehow so do pinball and video arcades. And somehow adults are frequently M.I.A. in this coming-of-age story, which, I suppose, makes it easier to grow up.

Along with a period musical soundtrack, it was kind of fun seeing Sean Penn playing one of the adults in a nostalgic film about the ‘70s, even if Spicoli and Fast Times at Ridgemont High came out in 1982. And it was fun as well seeing Bradley Cooper turn up as a more combustible version of Barbra Streisand’s producer-boyfriend Jon Peters. In fairness, Licorice Pizza (a title that’s not to be confused with Mystic Pizza, which actually had something to do with the story) is probably the kind of film that will grow on you the more times you watch it. Subtle comedies of character are often that way. But I’m not sure I’ll ever warm to all the running that this odd couple does, especially at the end, which is supposed to be their Chariots of Fire moment—only we suspect they have no idea where the finish line is, or why they’re running. Maybe repeat viewing will help me find their way. For now, though, count me as one of the few disappointed dissenters.

Entire family:  No (13 and older)
Run time:  133 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  MGM/Universal
Bonus features:  B-
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Amazon link
Rated R for language, sexual material and some drug use

Language:  6/10—at least three f-bombs (one of them a mushroom cloud) plus multiple swearwords

Sex:  4/10—mostly show-and-tell, as a male character asks a female to show him her breasts and a female asks a male to show his penis to see if he’s Jewish; one main character is braless throughout; boys goof around with a gas nozzle, acting like it’s a penis; there’s talk about a “vagina,” and

Violence:  2/10—a man threatens to kill a boy’s brother, and several characters pose an unrealized threat

Adult situations:  Lots of teen drinking and smoking, plus some drug use (marijuana)

Takeaway: Anderson doesn’t do typical love stories, and to that extent Licorice Pizza is a natural addition to an expanding filmography that includes Phantom Thread, Punch-Drunk Love, and Magnolia