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Review: Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Licorice Pizza' may be the year's best film

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson worked with the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman on films from "Boogie Nights" to "Magnolia." In "Licorice Pizza," Anderson has cast Hoffman's teenage son, Cooper Hoffman, opposite pop singer Alana Haim. "Licorice Pizza" is getting awards buzz, and critic Bob Mondello says deservedly so.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Encino, Calif. - a high school courtyard in the early 1970s, bored students in a long line snaking toward a photographer who'll take their yearbook photos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Tulip seed (ph).

MONDELLO: Alana, the photographer's assistant, is walking the line, offering a mirror to anyone who wants it. Most of the kids ignore her, but one boy, Gary Valentine, starts chatting her up like he wants a date. She points out that he's 15 and she's in her 20s, but he's unfazed, tells her he's an actor. And the more she brushes him off, the more he makes passes. Finally, he tosses a Hail Mary. He's having dinner at a restaurant she figures is way out of his league. She should meet him, he says. She smiles to herself as she walks away. But that night she shows up, and the folks in the restaurant all seem to know Gary. And he asks for a table, and she decides to go along.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LICORICE PIZZA")

ALANA HAIM: (As Alana Kane) So how'd you become such a hotshot actor?

COOPER HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) I'm a showman. It's my calling. I don't know how to do anything else. It's what I'm meant to do. I mean, ever since I was a kid, I've been a song and dance man.

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) Come on. Ever since you were a kid, a song and dance man (laughter). Where are your parents?

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) My mom works for me.

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) Oh, of course she does. That makes sense.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) Yes, she does, in my public relations company.

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) In your public relations company? Because you have that.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) Yes.

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) And you're an actor.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) Yes.

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) And you're a secret agent, too.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) Well, no, I'm not a secret agent. That's funny.

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) Are you joking?

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) Well, no, I'm not.

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) That's a lot.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) It gets complicated.

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) I'm sure, and all that math homework you have to do after everything.

MONDELLO: Alana is played by Alana Haim of the rock band Haim. Gary is played by first-timer Cooper Hoffman. And they are both relatable and real, from his acne to her increasingly perplexed reaction to being drawn into his orbit, at first as a sort of chaperone, then as a partner in various business ventures, always with a bit of romantic tension between them...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LICORICE PIZZA")

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) Do you think it's weird I hang out with Gary and his friends all the time?

MONDELLO: ...Even when she's dating other guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LICORICE PIZZA")

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) I think it's weird that I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends all the time.

MONDELLO: Gary is a hustler, forever selling something, if not himself as a boyfriend or an actor, then selling whatever is new to the hipsters of Los Angeles - water beds at one point, which brings him into contact with a thoroughly abrasive Jon Peters, played by Bradley Cooper.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LICORICE PIZZA")

BRADLEY COOPER: (As Jon Peters) Do you know who I am?

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) Yeah.

COOPER: (As Jon Peters) Do you know who my girlfriend is?

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) Barbara Streisand?

COOPER: (As Jon Peters) Barbara Streisand.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) Sand.

COOPER: (As Jon Peters) Sand - yeah, like sands, like the ocean, like beaches.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) Barbara Sti-sand (ph)?

COOPER: (As Jon Peters) No...

MONDELLO: Director Paul Thomas Anderson mixes personalities real and fictional. There's Sean Penn in a part based on William Holden, Tom Waits as a film director who turns a golf course into an inferno. And Alana Haim's real family plays her film family entirely persuasively. The director is clearly having a field day mining showbiz history and the '70s in general - gas lines, political chicanery, pinball arcades and a meandering plot that keeps its hero and heroine literally on the run much of the time, whether because Alana is saving Gary from a crisis or because Gary is torn between being a gentleman...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LICORICE PIZZA")

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) Do you really want to see my boobs?

MONDELLO: ...And his hormones.

COOPER: (As Gary Valentine) Can I touch them?

MONDELLO: Gary is game but has no game, at least not yet. And anyway, "Licorice Pizza" is Alana's journey of self-discovery, appropriately for a film that's plucked its star from a rock group for which Anderson has made several music videos and that takes its title from a long-gone record store chain. The soundtrack is killer, from its period-setting pop tunes to a score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, all in the service of a wistful, wide-eyed romance as sweet as the first time any of us fell in love.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LICORICE PIZZA")

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) I'm not going to forget you, just like you're not going to forget me.

MONDELLO: Just like you're not going to forget "Licorice Pizza," quite possibly the year's best film - easily its most delightful surprise. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID BOWIE SONG, "LIFE ON MARS?" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.