Review: Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza screenshot

Year: 2021 | Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Whew, boy. I have a lot of thoughts about Licorice Pizza. Like, a lot; maybe more thoughts than I had about any other film of the past year. I will do my best to organize those thoughts in a semi-readable manner.

It should be noted before we get into the nitty-gritty of this review that I am decidedly not a Paul Thomas Anderson fan. Of the films of his that I’ve seen, the only one that spoke to me in a way that was consistent with critical and audience consensus was There Will Be Blood (which I consider a genuine masterpiece); other PTA films such as Punch-Drunk LoveThe Master and, especially, Inherent Vice have left me scratching my head, wondering exactly what it is that almost everybody else whose opinion I respect sees in them.

I think that a big part of what I don’t enjoy about most of PTA’s work is his general tone — a bizarrely discordant feeling that at times makes me deeply uncomfortable. I totally understand that this is part of PTA’s unique style and is a selling point for many of his fans, but it ultimately usually makes me anxious, and not in a good “edge-of-my-seat” way. It’s some combination of composer Jonny Greenwood’s score, unintuitive camera angles and awkward acting that just doesn’t work for me. This tone does also permeate into some scenes of Licorice Pizza, which ended up building my discomfort throughout the lengthy runtime until I was practically squirming in my seat. But that’s not the only problem that I had with this film.

It would be disingenuous for me to ignore the two elephants in the room that have been the focus of the conversation surrounding this film since it was released in New York and L.A., so let me address those points first:

First of all, there is a running joke based on Asian-American stereotypes that is one of the most egregiously racist things I have ever seen in a film, modern or otherwise. When I first heard about this problematic portrayal, I was prepared for it to be a minor jab written in poor judgement that unfortunately ended up being unintentionally insensitive to members of certain minorities. The truth is that it’s actually so much worse than I could have imagined; my jaw literally dropped in disbelief that such an obviously offensive scene would end up in a film in 2021 not once, but twice. It also made me wonder if any filmmaker other than PTA could have gotten away with including the scenes; methinks that even if the scenes had gotten filmed at all, they almost certainly would have ended up on the cutting room floor where they belonged. It’s simply mind-blowing that in a couple of years that have seemingly been defined by racism against AAPI people in America (including a massacre waged against them), something this unashamedly racist would be included in a major film release.

Secondly, let’s talk about the age difference between the two main characters and the relationship between them. Let me start by saying that the “pedophile” moral panic surrounding this film is completely and utterly overblown. Nothing explicitly sexual happens between these characters, and exploring themes of teenage crushes on adults does not make PTA or anybody who liked this film a pedophile. Period. It’s also worth noting that stories like these are meant to be provocative, which is a value that I typically appreciate in art. I also understand the more subtle themes explored with this plot line: Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is a 15-year-old boy with a crush on a 25-year-old woman, and he doesn’t see anything wrong with that because he’s, well, a 15-year-old boy. Alana (Alana Haim) is a young adult who finds herself stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence, and she is forced to reconcile her feelings for Gary with her desire to get her life together and finally become an adult. I totally get all of that. But the fact of the matter is that by the end of the film, it’s very clear that Gary and Alana’s relationship is not purely platonic, and will continue in a non-platonic direction. And yeah, it’s kinda fucking weird.

It doesn’t help that there’s something off about both of these characters. Hoffman gives an endearing and charming performance…when his character acts like a 15-year-old boy, which is increasingly rare as the film progresses. His character is written more like a mob boss at times than a teenager, which very well may have been PTA’s intent, but it’s not very clear to what end (perhaps an attempt at “maturing” his character to make his relationship with Alana more natural?), and it doesn’t really play. And Alana is a completely erratic person who acts on every single impulse that comes to her mind, which frankly just makes her come off as a complete lunatic who is more unpredictable and immature than the literal children in the film (I also wasn’t a huge fan of Haim’s performance, but that’s neither here nor there). Neither of these characters act like people their respective ages, which, again, I recognize is absolutely intentional, but I don’t think that those intentions were executed as well as they could have been. I can’t stress enough how much the discourse surrounding the gap in their ages have gotten out of hand, but I can definitely understand some audiences being uncomfortable with the relationship as it is portrayed because, frankly, so was I.

So yes, there are some deeply problematic aspects of this film that I don’t think a less-acclaimed filmmaker could have necessarily gotten away with. But I also feel that there are some problems with the film’s pacing, mainly because there are several subplots scattered throughout the film that are more interesting than the main storyline itself, some of which I would like to see in movies of their own. Where, for instance, is Sean Penn and Tom Wait’s movie about the making of The Bridges at Toko-Ri? Where is Benny Safdie and Joseph Cross’s movie about Joel Wachs’s “scandalous” private life? Where’s Bradley Cooper’s movie about Jon Peters’s relationship with Barbra Streisand (who should absolutely be played by Lady Gaga)? At times, Gary and Alana’s story feels like a diversion from these eclectic and entertaining side plots, most of which are aided by tremendous borderline cameo performances by established actors and artists. It also seems like every single time we cut back to Gary and Alana, one or both of them are running somewhere for some (or, just as often, no) reason, making some parts of the film drag into a repetitive slog. People who read my reviews will be very familiar with this complaint, but it feels like this film could have been at least half an hour shorter and have been all the better for it.

Bottom line, I really, really wanted Licorice Pizza to be the rare PTA film that actually appealed to me, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Even beyond the potentially problematic aspects of the film, it quite frankly simply feels like just another PTA film to me. I fully understand and appreciate that this is a good thing for some — if not most — fellow cinephiles, but sadly it’s just the opposite for me.

Language: English
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Runtime: 2 hr. 13 min.
Rating: R

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper

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