Review – Licorice Pizza

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Overview

Synopsis Gary and Alana are both struggling young people in 1970's Hollywood. Over the course of a summer, the two start to fall in love as they try to make their lives and find names in the entertainment industry.

Length 2 Hours 13 Minutes

Release Date November 26, 2021

 

Rating R

Distribution United Artists Releasing (United States), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

Directing Paul Thomas Anderson

Writing Paul Thomas Anderson

Composition Jonny Greenwood

Starring Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the greatest artists of our time. Over his nine-film career, he’s jumped repeatedly in his approach to tone, subject matter, and influence. His early trilogy of films were nostalgia-fueled movies about the joy of classical filmmaking and they were filled with references and jokes about the San Fernando Valley. His more recent films like There Will Be Blood and The Master pushed much further into a new realm of heavy, symbolic, and emotionally serious arthouse filmmaking that has eclipsed the rest of the film industry in its execution and ambition. Even his nominally “lesser” films like Punch Drunk Love and Inherent Vice march to the beat of their own drums. They’re wildly original works of auteur insanity and they’re worthy of being appreciated in their own right.

His newest film is hotly anticipated but also being welcomed with a wave of controversy. Licorice Pizza seems to be a film more modest in its aims as a love story set against 1970s Los Angeles. That said, its execution leaves no mistake that it’s trying to be transgressive and original in spite of its modest presentation.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: A few scenes of tension and fear but no violence or blood is depicted.
Language/Crude Humor: Heavy profanity throughout including 48 uses of f*** and constant crude language.
Sexual Content: No sex or nudity is depicted but the film wrestles with sexual temptation and youthful desire. Most of its female characters don’t wear bras. A woman reveals her breasts offscreen to a teenager and then slaps him. A boy is tempted to touch a woman’s breast and then doesn’t. Characters discuss sex and sexual anatomy in crude ways multiple times.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Teenagers constantly smoke cannabis/cigarettes.
Spiritual Content: Some references to Orthodox Judaism and Christianity.
Other Negative Themes: Crude depictions of underage relationships and teenage sexual desires. Features a potentially hebephilic central relationship.
Positive Content: Somewhat innocent depiction of teenage love, listlessness, and the desire to find purpose in life.

Review

Licorice Pizza is this past year’s prickliest film. It’s the easiest film to dismiss outright as some kind of tacit endorsement of societal evils and yet it’s also not quite the things it’s accused of being. Paul Thomas Anderson is maneuvering in uncomfortable territory and whenever a director does this it raises questions. 

It’s a love story set against 1970s San Fernando Valley, California. This is a subject matter that isn’t unfamiliar to Paul Thomas Anderson. His first three films – Boogie Nights, Hard Eight, and Magnolia – were all famously set in similar settings, and his 2014 film Inherent Vice was set against very similar times and events. 

The film captures the lives of Gary Valentine and Alana Kane; two young people floating around the edges of the entertainment industry in 1970s Los Angeles. Gary is an ambitious child star with a knack for investing in cutting-edge novelty businesses like waterbed installation and pinball arcades. Alana is an aimless young Jewish woman who is looking for respite from her life and trying to find meaning in her work and relationships. Both Gary and Alana are a strange match as they’re somewhat opposites. Yet over the course of a hot California summer, the two go through a somewhat listless coming-of-age journey and start coming to terms with the fact they have feelings for each other. 

This is a problem though because there’s a ten-year age gap between them: Alana is 25 and Gary is 15. 
This is the most overtly controversial part of Licorice Pizza and it’s not exactly hard to see why. The nature of such a relationship raises questions about whether the film is overtly trying to endorse pedophilic relationships, as such relationships can legally be charged with statutory rape if they are consummated.   

Frankly, though, I don’t think that’s what the movie is going for. Paul Thomas Anderson has a solid reputation behind the scenes as a family man and he’s worked with dozens of female and child actors in the past, so it’s hard to make the accusation that he wants to use the film as some sort of degenerate propaganda (as Netflix’s Cuties was accused of being last year). 

For one, the film never depicts the consummation of this relationship. When you take the age gap out of the equation, Licorice Pizza is otherwise a story of two young adults working through their egotism and fear of the future and finding a spark between them. Every chance the film has to allow the characters to move things further is met by the character’s own resistance. The movie lampshades the nature of their relationship multiple times by outright acknowledging that it’s weird for a 25-year-old to hang out with a 15-year-old and have mutual feelings. We’re never shown nudity and the characters otherwise seem chaste. If this movie wanted to fetishize pedophilia, it would’ve depicted it more directly.

The question of the film’s premise drudges up the classical issue of depiction versus endorsement. This question was raised against this film in other regards as well, as many anti-racist activists have spoken out online about the film’s cavalier depiction of 1970s antisemitism and anti-Asian racism. At several points in the film, characters make crude and offensive comments and the film seems to understand that they’re gross and inappropriate. Again though, there’s no evidence Paul Thomas Anderson harbors racist or prejudiced opinions. These scenes seem to exist as set dressing, a reminder of the recent past when casual prejudice was more rampant. 

The depiction of a hebephilic relationship raises questions though. What purpose does it serve? What understanding is Paul Thomas Anderson trying to capture? What benefit does a film gain from such a questionable premise if he’s just experimenting with such potentially toxic ideas? He’s dancing very close to one of society’s most toxic no-go zones with abandon and he has to know that.

As D. Patrick Rogers writes for Nashville Scene:

“But these are fictional characters. Bad decisions and messy relationships and immoral activity make for compelling fictional narratives. Anderson isn’t condoning the relationship — which, make no mistake, is bound to make you uncomfortable — but rather asking, “How does this make you feel?” As much as Licorice Pizza is about the uncertainty of youth, it’s also about what it’s like to care so much about another person that everything else fades into the background. Even, or perhaps especially, when it’s messy, problematic or wrong.”

RogerEbert.com similarly writes in their review:

“What makes this amorphous romance make sense is that a) it’s extremely chaste, b) she’s sort of stunted at the film’s start, and c) Anderson wisely establishes early on that Gary has a swagger and intelligence beyond his years. In a way that’s reminiscent of Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” all the adults Gary encounters take him seriously and treat him as an equal.”

Licorice Pizza is a nostalgia-ridden, mostly plotless story that lives and dies by the emotional strength of its core relationship. Maybe it could be said fairly that the movie captures a fundamentally innocent desire in the heart of its protagonist for an authentic relationship as seen through the eyes of a relatively harmless teenage boy. And certainly, it does show strengths in that regard through both characters concurrently as they explore their own coming-of-age stories while flirting and teasing one another. It is a very good depiction of a certain kind of childish adolescence that many modern young people get trapped in under the age of 30 wherein they fail to emotionally age out of their teenage hangups and fully mature into adults.

The core temptation of their problematic relationship though does raise questions and I don’t blame anyone who washes their hands of the film as something degenerate or potentially harmful.

Positives

+ Beautiful cinematography and production design
+ Innocent depiction of youthful desire
+ Honest exploration of youthful listlessness and economic struggle
+ Anti-show business satire

Negatives

- Problematic depiction of hebephilic relationship
- Potentially damaging and transgressive themes

The Bottom Line

Licorice Pizza is a beautifully made and sweet film but it's marred by the problematic nature of its core character dynamic. It may be intentionally sweet and innocent in its intentions, but in a time when actual pro-pedophile propaganda is bubbling up on the fringes and where global sex traffickers are being imprisoned, it does raise some uncomfortable questions.

 

8

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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