Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza


Licorice Pizza, the latest release by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a 133-minute smile frequently augmented by belly laughs. Even in his darkest works, comedy has always found a way to creep into the writer/director's filmography: the WTF?! downpour of frogs in Magnolia; Joaquin Pheonix seeing genitalia in every ink blot in The Master. But from its opening Meet Cute to its inspired roster of satiric figures to its rapturous finale in which two youths literally fall for each other (and into each other), Anderson's spirit-of-'73 salute all but bubbles over with euphoric high jinks, platonic-rom-com wit, and an unmissable desire to give audiences a great time. It's like the movie version of a chocolate-covered pretzel: salty and sweet, and something that, once consumed, makes you instantly crave more.

Although its cast is huge, Licorice Pizza really only boasts two prominent characters, with the rest of the ensemble an ever-shifting parade of pop-in guests. Cooper Hoffman, the 18-year-old son of the late, longtime Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman, plays Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old fading child star with the face of an acne-ridden cherub and the drive of a Wall Street trader. On class-photo day at his southern-California high school, Gary's eyes land on the photographer's 25-year-old assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the pop/rock sibling trio Haim). Approachably beautiful and clearly bored to death with her insulting job, Alana instantly becomes Gary's romantic ideal, and he tells her so. She laughs off his declaration, reminding him that their union would be illegal as well as icky. But Gary, as we quickly discover, is nothing if not persistent. He asks Alana to dinner that night at the San Fernando Valley's Tail o' the Cock restaurant – a chic eatery where his mother's connections have made Gary a beloved regular. Alana is appalled by the invite … but also just charmed and curious enough by Gary's brazen confidence to say she'll consider showing up. She does. Gary is enchanted. Alana is wary yet intrigued. And for the next two hours of Anderson's sun-soaked comedy, no matter how much Alana sometimes wants to, these grudging best friends rarely escape one another's orbit.

It may not seem like it, but I've actually just outlined Licorice Pizza's entire plot. Because that's it: Gary and Alana simply hang out, and occasionally don't, while navigating auditions, a Manhattan press junket, a mayoral campaign, a crippling oil crisis, a succession of skeevy middle-aged men, and Gary's get-rich-quick forays into the waterbed and pinball industries. (One thing that isn't addressed is Gary's schooling, and the movie is coy to the point of distraction regarding the young man's studies, not to mention the “How?” behind this 15-year-old's ability to successfully launch his entrepreneurial efforts.) Yet the film's lack of a traditional narrative isn't a detriment. On the contrary, it's Licorice Pizza's chief selling point. After their first two scenes, it's evident that the chemistry between Anderson's leads – both of them in their movie debuts – is going to work like gangbusters: Hoffman's Gary, with his moony earnestness and braggadocio, bouncing off the sardonic rationality and frustrated aimlessness of Haim's Alana. The actors are so much fun riffing, scheming, and pining together that plot would just get in their way.

Bradley Cooper and Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza

But the absence of a consistent storyline also allows Anderson's coming-of-age saga to be routinely stolen by more seasoned performers who know precisely how to make their marks in a mere two to 10 minutes of screen time. Christine Ebersole is a hoot as a veteran actress (modeled after Lucille Ball) who verbally and physically assaults Gary for his unscripted antics. John Michael Higgins is horrifyingly riotous as a restaurant proprietor who speaks in offensive broken English to his Japanese wife … and then his next Japanese wife. Sean Penn, doing a suave parody of Method posturing, shows up as an alcoholic icon who unsuccessfully tries to sweet-talk Alana, and who's goaded into a life-threatening stunt initiated by growly Tom Waits' fellow drunkard. Bennie Safdie, the co-director (with brother Joshua) of Robert Pattinson's Good Time and Adam Sandler's Uncut Gems, appears as a sweet, sweatily anxious politician with a secret. And Bradley Cooper, whose role as Barbra Streisand's then-boyfriend Jon Peters lasts all of seven minutes, has perhaps never been more hilarious, delivering a knockout combo of coke-fueled rage, egomania, and unmitigated horniness. I'd call Cooper best-in-show among Licorice Pizza's obscene bevy of supporting talent, but that wouldn't be fair to Harriet Sansom Harris, whose ferally intense Hollywood agent is allotted half of Cooper's screen time and somehow inspires twice as many laughs. (Harris is only given one scene yet pulls off maybe the most hysterical one-sided phone conversation I've ever heard: “No … . No … ! Love to Tatum.”)

Lest I make it seem like Anderson's beautifully written achievement is nothing but giggles, I should add that the director is in superb control of his film's contrasting tones and emotional states: there's legitimate malice in Alana's verbal pummeling of Gary for his immaturity; legitimate pathos in Alana's walk home with a closeted dinner date (the heartbreaking Joseph Cross); legitimate terror in a moving van's backard coast through a hilly Encino subdivision. But even in the movie's most devastating moments, you may find yourself unable to stifle a grin. Anderson and his thunderously fine cast of pros and gifted newbies make Licorice Pizza a colossal delight throughout, and the perfectly era-appropriate soundtrack – David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Wings, Sonny & Cher – tickles your ears while the movie itself works your heart, brain, and funny bone. It's heaven. Or at least a generous slice.

Anna Paquin and Zachary Levi in American Underdog


This December, I've spent a significant amount of time with my 81-year-old dad and 79-year-old mom, and also attended the wedding of my 30-year-old godchild. While I'm grateful to have all of them around, I'm not sure I've ever experienced a month that made me feel older. So what does the biographical sports drama American Underdog go and do just to kick me while I'm down? It casts Anna Paquin as a divorced mother of two who's quite a few years the senior of her love interest played by Zachary Levi. I should be ready for that toilet-seat riser and medic-alert bracelet any day now.

The rest of the movie, I'm happy to say, was a lot easier to bear. This triumph-of-the-you-know-what bio-pic and proudly pro-faith work by Christian filmmakers Andrew and Jon Erwin dramatizes the early crises and eventual triumphs of Burlington native and University of Northern Iowa graduate Kurt Warner (Levi), following him from his Green Bay Packers setback to his grocery-store graveyard shift to his tenure with arena football's Iowa Barnstormers to his unparalleled success as a St. Louis Rams quarterback. Obviously, American Underdog has considerable local appeal baked into it, and at the nicely populated Davenport screening I attended, you could hear occasional squeals of recognition when a title card read “Cedar Rapids” or Warner stocked cereal boxes in his apron with the Hy-Vee name tag. (Hopefully, those folks didn't stick through the end credits to see that the movie was actually filmed in Atlanta and Oklahoma City.) But despite the Erwins' latest following its genre blueprint with relentless fidelity, I was relieved to see that my crowd's collective goodwill wasn't squandered. While American Underdog might not offer much in the way of narrative surprise, especially if you're familiar with the Kurt Warner legend, it makes up for its formulaic predictability with sincerity and endearing performances, and unexpectedly, it also gives Paquin – in her role as Warner's girlfriend-then-wife Brenda – and Levi nearly equal amounts of solid material.

Although the football sequences are reliably, if generically, rousing, we aren't really given much insight into the technique that made Warner such a miraculous player. In the movie's telling, the guy gets his big break with St. Louis not because of any specific talent, but because a rascally coach played by the ever-rascally Dennis Quaid saw “something special” in Warner that's never actually defined. (Apparently, at least with the Rams in 1999, determination and heart were enough to secure six-figure contracts.) The Erwins, however, are on much stronger footing with their Christian messaging; as they proved in their MercyMe bio-pic I Can Only Imagine and, to a lesser extent, their Jeremy Camp salute I Still Believe, the filmmaker siblings can convey characters' devout faith without being overtly preachy. And in an unanticipated pleasure, the Erwins appear completely assured in their domestic scenes here, focusing more than half of the movie's attentions on the evolving relationship between Kurt and Brenda that Levi and Paquin evince with welcome complexity, good humor, and visible emotion. I had a decent time during American Underdog's gridiron bits. (Having character-actor great Bruce McGill on hand never hurts.) Yet I had a pretty wonderful time whenever it was just Kurt and Brenda and Brenda's kids on screen – even if the sight of that formerly pre-teen, now-middle-aged Oscar winner from The Piano did make me feel about 100 years old. Imagine how Holly Hunter feels.

Chanté Adams and Michael B. Jordan in A Journal for Jordan


Like American Underdog, director Denzel Washington's A Journal for Jordan is based on true events, with the film recounting the romance between New York Times journalist Dana Canedy (Chanté Adams) and 1st Sergeant Charles Monroe King (Michael B. Jordan) that ended with King's 2007 death while deployed in Iraq. Before departing the U.S. for his fatal tour, King left Canedy the titular journal for their newborn son – an effective how-to manual on growing up to be a good man, good provider, and good partner. When Jordan is a teenager (and played by the touching, teary-eyed Jalon Christian), the bullied youth is finally given the diary by his mom, and as he reads his father's life lessons and takes them to heart, it's clear that this boy will one day grow up to be an outstanding adult. It's a sad, lovely, moving story … and oh how I wish Washington and screenwriter Virgil Williams had been more interested in telling it. Until the movie's last 15 minutes, however, they're not. What they are interested in telling for the preceding two hours is the story of Canedy's and King's courtship and pre-baby love affair, and among 2021 releases, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger missed opportunity, or a cinematic romance that felt quite this dully fraudulent.

As the script is adapted from Canedy's memoir A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love & Honor, I suppose we have to take the film's presentation of events seriously. But if they're indeed true, it's amazing how much the details of Canedy's and King's history conform to tiresome rom-com imperatives. Of course type-A personality Dana has to initially clash with the serenely confident Charles. Of course when he picks her up for their breakfast date she's a mess because she overslept. Of course Dana has to angrily accuse Charles of caring more for his career than he does for her. Of course Dana has a trio of Sex & the City-esque besties with whom she shares cosmopolitans and gossip. (Of course one of them is a gay man whose every utterance is reminiscent of a Paul Lynde wisecrack on Hollywood Squares.)

But I wound up almost preferring this canned tripe to the ersatz sincerity that follows, given that Washington's stagnant compositions kill all possible momentum, and the leads pause long enough between sentences that you could safely visit the concession stand or hit the restroom in between their characters' vacant exchanges. Newcomer Chanté Adams, meanwhile, displays some fire when she's not being directed to act at a snail's pace, but the usually über-charismatic Michael B. Jordan is stuck playing a faultless figure of moral rectitude, and winds up giving – his turn in the 2015 Fantastic Four arguably excepted – the most boring performance of his career. You keep waiting for A Journal for Jordan to be about, you know, the journal for Jordan. Yet you keep being thwarted by deadening clichés and prototypical evening-soap contrivances that you've seen countless times before – everything but the journal, and the boy, of the title. You'd have to be emotionally bankrupt not to be moved by the film's climactic gravesite gathering. You'd have to be re-e-e-eally forgiving to be moved by anything that happens before it.

Suzanna Son and Simon Rex in Red Rocket


It's been a while since I've seen a movie in which I honestly couldn't tell if I was enjoying it even while viewing it. Truth be told, I kind of miss that type of movie. But if you, too, are feeling nostalgic for those artsy Vox Luxes and Suspirias and similar titles that are as confounding as they are engaging, I'd guide you toward Red Rocket (now playing at Iowa City's FilmScene), writer/director Sean Baker's dramatic comedy about a washed-up Hollywood porn star (Simon Rex's Mikey Saber) who returns, figurative and intimidating tail between his legs, to his Texas City stomping grounds in order to resurrect his hustling ways.

Much of Baker's film, his first since 2017's The Florida Project, reminded me of Entourage, the HBO series that I eventually gave up on when it became apparent that its quartet of entitled douchebags would never get the comeuppance their abhorrent behavior and attitudes demanded. Motor-mouthed Mikey does his best to be ingratiating, but he's also a complete opportunist who treats his ex-wife (Bree Elrod) abominably, scams his friendly next-door neighbor (Ethan Darbone) for rides without chipping in for gas, and makes his life goal the recruitment of a 17-year-old donut-shop employee (Suzanna Son) into the world of high-end porn. Mikey is, to put it generously, an asshole. But there's also something strangely sweet about this professional conniver who looks like a beefed-up Sean Hayes; his dreams and goals may be repellant, but they're genuine.

Not much happens in Red Rocket – Mikey mows the lawn, scores a gig as weed dealer to local construction workers, watches a lot of daytime TV with his mother-in-law (Brenda Deiss) – and little of it is dramatically affecting. Yet Baker's ensemble of mostly amateur actors proves effortlessly capable of making their hardscrabble Texans distinctive and fitfully funny, and even though he's doing more work with his face than he needs to, former MTV VJ and Scary Movie mainstay Rex keeps you watching, and turns in a more robust, complicated portrayal than his characterization (and certainly his résumé) would initially promise. While the frustrating yet impressively naturalistic Red Rocket isn't a success on par with Baker's previous works, it's certainly worth watching, even if you ultimately regret the two-hours-plus you spent watching the thing.

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