1970s California – a place and time where anything could happen, and most of it did. It’s a period that’s romanticized for a variety of reasons. To the interests of filmmakers and film scholars, it is looked upon fondly due to the creative boom known as “New Hollywood.” An unprecedented era for auteur license in American cinema, this fruitful period helped produce classics such as The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Conversation, and Chinatown among many others. So it’s no surprise that director Paul Thomas Anderson, who undoubtedly considers himself one of our great modern auteurs, would have such a nostalgic vigor for the 1970s. That enthusiasm is all over the screen in Licorice Pizza, Anderson’s part fantasy/part real-life anecdotal tale of young love in the California Valley, all brought to fruition by two standout lead performances.
The story centers on a young woman named Alana (Alana Haim), whose crappy job has her assisting “Picture Day” at a local high school. It is there she meets the very confident, flirtatious, and overzealous Gary (Cooper Hoffman). Gary is a 15-year-old freshman but of no ordinary variety. He’s starred in movies, and his mom is his business manager. He makes it seem like he’s a big shot to Alana, although his projection of himself will prove to be a bit overstated. Alana, despite the best attempts to hide it, is intrigued by Gary and his apparent influence. There’s just one problem for this potential romance – SHE’S 25 YEARS OLD!
The egregious age difference between the two leads causes Alana to avoid a romantic relationship with Gary, opting instead for a friendship. Gary’s feelings for Alana are abundant, but his immaturity does as much to drive her away as does their age gap. The duo’s tenable friendship is the catalyst for a dual coming of age story, one in which the pair struggle to make something of themselves and find self-worth. As their bizarre story unfolds, we see a very different America in the 1970s, long before the reckonings of social justice and a post #MeToo era. This gives PTA carte blanche to be as blunt as possible with the subject matter, regardless of how “problematic” it may seem to modern audiences.
This is most apparent with the inclusion of the character Jerry (John Michael Higgins). Jerry has only brief interactions with our protagonists but makes a helluva impression by way of his exaggerated Japanese accent. Jerry, a white man, uses the accent to mock his Japanese wives (yes, there are multiple over the course of the film) to his colleagues while his wife is present. It’s the most unnecessary story element in the movie, largely here to mock Jerry’s ignorance. PTA knows this wouldn’t be appropriate in modern times, but uses the period piece setting as a crutch for “well, that’s just how things used to be,” citing his own experiences while witnessing insensitivity toward his Japanese mother-in-law. But, the reality is that it’s just a very unfunny on-the-nose joke with poor execution and a poor punchline that leaves the director hanging out to dry for potential criticism. Plot-wise, it could have also been cut from the movie entirely.
Poorly dramatized jokes aside, PTA coats the movie with slice-of-life aplomb mixed with occasional masterclasses in tension. One such scene involves a “Moving Truck” that makes up the best moment in the film and a chance for PTA to showcase his more visually kinetic directing chops. On a narrative level, however, much has been made about what the story endorses and what the message of the movie is. The story is based on anecdotes from PTA’s friend, and actor/producer, Gary Goetzman. This gives credence that the bizarre events of the film, including the central premise, have origins in truth.
There’s a misunderstanding about “Death of the Author” that assumes a fan can apply any headcanon they want to a piece of fiction. What it actually refers to is the event where a work of fiction communicates something the author did not intend – See: King Kong (1933). Here, I believe Licorice Pizza is PTA’s attempt to snapshot a moment in time far different from our own, one not influenced by modern standards of decency. That’s why the story centers on a relationship that would be far from romanticized in 2022, and that is why we have the bit with the bigoted husband. PTA doesn’t water down the era, he depicts it all even if it’s unsavory. But while the movie demonstrates how parts of 1970s culture can be distasteful, I wouldn’t say that’s what the movie is actually about. What PTA has made is a portrait of love juxtaposed with transactional relationships.
This is heavily dramatized in the way characters are either attracted to or use one another. Alana is at first attracted to Gary due to his proximity to Hollywood before she’s swept up by an older, handsome, and more experienced actor. Bradley Cooper appears as real-life film producer Jon Peters – the infamous one from all those Kevin Smith stories (“We’re from the streets!” he remarks to Gary). Peters is one of the most eccentric film producers of his generation, and that is on full display in a terrific performance by Cooper. One of the most telling aspects of his personality is how much he brags about being in a relationship with Barbara Streisand. There’s not really an implication of love here, Peters just thinks his conquest is impressive and he uses it to flaunt his worth to Gary. His lack of genuine emotion for Streisand is exposed when he creepily hits on Alana, or how he tries to pick up a couple of women by inquiring about peanut butter. Gary himself shows interest in a slew of women based solely on looks as a 15-year-old is ought to do, and I’m not entirely sure what’s up with Jerry’s Japanese fetish but we can safely say that has nothing to do with love either.
As Alana’s existential crisis accelerates, she attempts to untether herself from Gary’s orbit. In doing so, she finds herself as a witness to the bastardization of love. One in which a key character refuses to acknowledge their romantic ties, as the transactional benefit for them would be nonexistent. This supplies an interesting commentary on human relationships, one in which questions what our end goal is for the company we keep. In Hollywood, it can, too often further a career or elicit a certain image. In politics, the desire to be elected helps influence our (often unsavory) decisions. And in more typical relationships, how often does conformity help decide the person we end up with? Religion, sexuality, race, class, politics, and familial upbringing all play a role. One relationship in the story ends precisely because a guy won’t conform to the family’s religion.
This (possibly unintended) theme of transactions colors Alana’s wayward struggle to find direction in her life. She hates her job, feels shame for the people she hangs out with, and is consistently treated as an object rather than a person. At a near breaking point, all she has to fall back on is to remind Gary that she’s cooler than him. It is more to convince her than him because this teenager couldn’t possibly be cooler than a 20-something adult?
This is Alana’s movie, her lessons to learn, her journey to traverse, while also being the source of the movie’s uncomfortable controversy. She’s a woman lost, and possibly out of time. Alana’s lot in life may have made more sense in 2022, when her treatment by society may have been better. Nonetheless, she’s stuck in the 70s wondering how this schlubby kid is so sure of himself. How is it the 15-year-old seems to be more confident than the 25-year-old? What’s the right balance between being brash and being stupid? Boys usually are given more leeway to find out than girls, as PTA should hopefully know. It’s what has allowed him to make a film like Licorice Pizza, an insane, moving, darkly funny, problematic piece of work that details the anxiety that comes when someone younger than you seems to have it all figured out. Alana will figure it out, just at a slower pace. Hopefully, future Alanas won’t be forced into such a predicament, for what is progress otherwise?