Paul Thomas Anderson is a director and writer that I usually love to watch. He’s a director who can explore romance in nuanced ways like Punch Drunk Love and explore uncomfortable moments where religion and violence intersect, like with There Will Be Blood. But, then, his most recent feature, Licorice Pizza, somehow misses all of the marks and self-reflection that he’s come to show in his work. Written and directed by Anderson, Licorice Pizza stars Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim as Gary Valentine and Alana Kane with appearances from Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, Maya Rudolph, John Michael Higgins, Tom Waits, and John C. Reilly.
The film is a simple slice-of-life set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973. Gary is a 15-year-old high schooler with an entrepreneurial streak that takes him from acting to owning a waterbed business and more. Alana is a 25-year-old woman working for a portrait studio that comes to take portraits of the kids at Gary’s school. Stuck in a crappy job and a crappy life, she accepts Gary’s request for a date, and the film begins pushing the two together. However, while Alana notes the age difference, even stating that it’s a crime, those threads go nowhere.
Age gaps are a romance trope that works when both characters are adults but is downright unsettling when one character is a teen. However, most people only tend to notice when it’s an adult man with a teen girl; in those moments, people push back and can spot the issue. However, when it’s an adult woman with a teen boy, the trope is seen as charming and endearing. This happens for two reasons—boys are easily seen as men, and women are quite often infantilized well into their early thirties.
Anderson does this routinely through Licorice Pizza which makes it one of the most uncomfortable films I’ve watched in a long time. And the film isn’t even uncomfortable for a purpose like critiquing age gaps, or even the racism is shown multiple times throughout the film to remind you that it’s the 70s. Instead, it’s just uncomfortable because the narrative revolves around infantilizing Alana by consistently showing her as a lost 25-year-old and making Gary into an entrepreneurial man so that you forget he’s a 15-year-old child. Even then, when Anderson does take time to remind you that Gary is a child, like when he’s alone with his teenage friends (who Alana drove around) and makes childish jokes, the next act throws those moments away.
In fact, Gary pressures Alana sexually into multiple situations, and while there is nothing physical, she listens. Gary pushes her into being sexy, and she abides by his wishes. Which, may I remind you, are the wishes of a child, because yes, 15-years-old is still a child. Probably in an effort to make the film less creepy (which if the genders were reversed, we would call it such just from the premise), Gary is the one in control. A 15-year-old controls the women in his life, which makes everything feel all the more unsettling.
Sure, the film has visual beauty, with Anderson making a sharp 1970s period piece in the modern-day. Not to mention Bradley Cooper’s minutes of screen time are hilarious and charismatic and so completely chaotic that he steals the entire film. But those positives just can’t undo the damage the movie does.
Beyond that, the film’s three acts are a slog. At 133 minutes of runtime, the story bounces between points and developments that fizzle out or feel tacked on. For example, there is a racist thread where a white man with a fetish for Japanese women and culture is marketing his restaurant. There is a point where a politician is trying to hide his personal life and only ends up making Alana realize that she is in love with the 15-year-old protagonist. In fact, nothing but romance comes to fruition. Alana exists to be made a child who doesn’t know what she is doing with her life despite being a woman. And Gary is a teen who exists to be a con-man making new businesses and money, effectively rescuing the 25-year-old love of his life from her ineptitude.
Marketed as a film exploring first love, Licorice Pizza does so in the creepiest of ways over two hours. Too long and too messy, Licorice Pizza is supposed to be a coming-of-age story, only it’s about aging up and aging down its lead characters to make sense of the ten-year age gap. The score and cinematography are top-notch, and this is clearly an Anderson film. But it’s too uncomfortable and unorganized for me to recommend. In simplest of terms, Licorice Pizza is a film for men who fantasized about dating their babysitters when they were teens.
Marketed as a film exploring first love, it does so in the creepiest of ways over two hours. Too long and too messy, Licorice Pizza is supposed to be a coming-of-age story, only it’s about aging up and aging down its lead characters to make sense of the 10 year age gap. The score and cinematography are top-notch, and this is clearly an Anderson film. But it’s too uncomfortable and unorganized for me to recommend.