THB #46: Licorice Pizza Review
It took me 4 screenings before I really felt comfortable with the idea of reviewing Licorice Pizza. It’s not an incredibly complex movie on the surface. I know people who, 7 years later, are still picking Inherent Vice out of their teeth. This is not that movie (which I love, btw).
I guess Paul Thomas Anderson could make it easier if he just put 1975’s “Born To Run” on the soundtrack. I guess that would just be too easy (and just outside of PTA’s time frame for this film).
Because what finally came to me as the primary motif of the film is… running.
When the characters run, they feel god’s pleasure. They feel everything. They are their best selves. When they walk, they are thinking and clever and cutting, and still vulnerable. But when they run… they just are.
Sometimes, the running and walking doesn’t actually make logical sense. How does Alana know where the police station in Hollywood is without a smartphone? Is Fat Bernie’s Pinball Palace really that close to the office of Congressman Wachs? If Tail O’ the Cock is close to Studio City, is Gary actually walking Alana home to Encino?
None of this matters. This kind of literalism is utterly besides the point.
Licorice Pizza is about feeling.
I had a bit of a tussle on Twitter about Alana’s age in the film. Many are comfortable that she is definitely 25, as she states a couple different times in the film. But even after 4 screenings, I am not so sure. Probably. But she hedges every time her age comes up. In one case, “25” seems like a defense against a 15-year-old who is unabashed about his age. In another, “25” seems like a come on to an older man.
Again… not the point. It’s not Harold & Maude (even though it is opening around that classic’s 50th anniversary and Hal Ashby’s energy abounds in Licorice).
This is not a movie about a grown woman and a child. It’s a movie about a young man who, as Alana herself notes, is not interested in being bound by anyone’s conventional thinking about who he should be. And it’s about a young woman who is revving her engine, desperate to find a gear that will allow her to accelerate into her maturity.
That said, Hal Ashby’s work seems to be a central inspiration for this movie.
There is the Harold & Maude (1971) element. Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, a fictionalized take on Jon Peters, was in 1975. I can’t really see a connection to The Last Detail, the 1973 release in this 4-film Ashby run. Ashby’s first film, The Landlord, was released in 1970 and the lead (Beau Bridges) wears an outfit that Licorice viewers will find familiar.
How long is the story told in the movie? Unclear. Long enough for Gary to have a brithday that isn’t included in the film.
Exactly what are the dates? The official site of the film says the film is set around the 1973 gas shortage. Bowie’s “Life on Mars” was released in 1971. Pinball was made legal in Los Angeles County again in 1974. Jon Peters’ relationship with Barbra Streisand reportedly went from 1973 to 1982. The final Teen-Age Fair at the Hollywood Palladium was 1972. Joel Wachs won a spot on the Los Angeles City Council in 1971. Yours, Mine & Ours was released in 1968. (And Skyler Gisondo’s Lance Brannigan seems to be based on the very tall Tim Matheson, who would soon be in Animal House and have an amazing lifelong career.)
But again… the details don’t really matter. Someone will write a book on it eventually. (Boogie Nights is also tied to a vague, but broadly specific 70s period as VHS, central to the story, launched commercially in 1977.)
Alana may be the angriest female character to dominate a movie since Mrs. Robinson. But Mrs. Robinson’s anger seems to come of having gotten “it all” and remaining deeply unsatisfied. Alana doesn’t seem to feel like she has gotten anything. She is the early 70s of Gerri from Succession, at a time when Gerri could not have risen to the level she is at, even if becoming the real CEO is nearly impossible. She reads the paper for real. She understand business. She understands numbers. She can lead. But the only 2 males who really see her are Gary, a 15-year-old, and a closeted City Council candidate. (Wachs would finally come out in 1999, when running for Mayor.) She seems to take after her father, who is a hard ass… but who clearly cares deeply for his family of 4 women.
Gary is a force of nature. It’s funny reading some critics who see him opening a waterbed story and then turning into a pinball palace as random. It’s the core of who he is. A small-time actor who is marketing restaurants successfully enough to be a full partner to his mother (another undervalued woman), who is always looking for the next hustle, who is daring enough to mess with Lucy live on national TV, who is fearless enough to ask the school photo girl out even though she is out of high school and he is not even a senior. If you have never met this guy, you are missing something. Of course, most of these people crash and burn on the regular. Gary Goetzman, on whim the character is based, is hugely successful as a producer, partnered with Tom Hanks, with their biggest financial success being Mamma Mia!, a show and movie led by and about women.
Both Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman have the perfect energy as new actors for the purposes of this film… neither is afraid of the camera or showing themselves… but they have a relaxed naturalism that is magical. I can see moments that some may not be completely enchanted with, but remarkably, I can’t think of a moment in the film where I caught either of these two acting.
The supporting cast is, as usual with PTA, amazing. Harriet Samson Harris needs to be a balloon in the Thanksgiving Day Parade if they aren’t going to give her an Oscar. However you feel about Being The Ricardos, Christine Ebersole wins the Best Lucy award for the year, going away. The Haim family, Alana’s real family as Alana’s family, is dead on and her father, Moti, could become the R. Lee Ermey of the next few years, a flavor that every filmmaker wants that they never realized they were missing.
Ryan Heffington as Jon Peters’ assistant Steve is a favorite and I feel like he is playing a version of Stuart Margolin’s Gary - Julie Andrews’ flamboyant assistant - from S.O.B., a psuedo-autobographical high-fictionalized comedy by Blake Edwards about his real-life experience on 1971’s Darling Lili.
The most simple and the most challenging cameo is John Michael Higgins as Jerry Frick, a white American who loves Asia, spending time overseas and best known in Los Angeles for his Asian restaurants. He speaks to his female companions in English spoken with a bad Japanese accent. They speak only Japanese. Somehow, they understand one another. Is this a racist moment? The audience laughs hard, in no small part because that kind of bad accent spoken to someone who speaks another language is no longer acceptable in out culture. But for me, the question is, do people do this? They do. And are they all badly intented? No, they are not. Are some well intended? Yes.
As in all these circumstances, the level of tolerance and the various ideas of what an approproate response is, varies widely. I have seen analsis taking this moment in the film way down the rabbit hole. I have seen others dismiss it as an issue. I find myself somewhat split. I laugh at the moment. Higgins is a funny man. And the idea of these women, in this circumstance, with someone they have a relationship with, able to express what they feel - including that focusing on the waitress costumes in the marketing is offensive… and being heard, in spite of the language gap - is a human moment. The fact that Jerry changes partners and it is barely mentioned is also a human moment. Alana shoving the promotional materials into a bathroom stall after being told it is a bad fit and Jerry doesn’t want that is also a human moment.
I don’t think this breaks the movie somehow. It’s pushing buttons. But so are many things in the film. It is real human behavior. Stupid, yes. But human. And I vote for that, even if it makes me cringe.
Benny Safdie has the biggest supporting part and he is excellent. I don’t know if Benny is gay or not… in real life or via this performance… and I couldn’t be happier. He transmits the range of internalized pain and fear that closeted people must feel with his eyes alone. By the time his camera time is over, you even wonder if his absent-mindedness is an internalized device to keep a distance from others who might be looking too closely for comfort. Joe Cross is also terrific here.
The stars, Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, and Tom Waits, are terrific. I don’t see any of these as significant enough performances to be awards bait. But Cooper is the bigger cameo and his physicality while “helping” Alana drive the truck is a masterpiece of acting, directing, and editing.
Ultimately, Licorice Pizza isn’t a first love movie, really. It’s certainly not a first sex movie. Does Alana put out for her strong of boyfriends she has brought home to her family? Is Gary really getting handjobs from women in the workplace? We don’t know. The movie doesn’t seriously address it. (The Spielberg Sisters are a funny trick in the film, as they don’t look exactly alike, but they look enough alike to make the audience unsure if they are playing the same character in different acts.)
Getting back to Ashby, the relationships are very specific, not classically universal… even more so than films like The Graduate or Goodbye, Columbus, which have a similar feel, but use specific focus to illuminate a broader idea of coming of age. And it is so here.
Gary tells Alana from the start that they are fated to be in one another’s lives. The movie is complex, funny, and fascinating series of moments that are about his patient relentlessness and her fight to not accept the idea that she is fated for anything good.
There are so many moments to linger on in this movie. As I said from the top, the couple becomes free only when they stop trying… when they run.
But one moment lingers as the moment it peaks and starts working less hard. And it’s when…
SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
… when they are on the waterbed, exhausted from their shared adventure and Gary looks at the gap between her lower stomach and her jeans… then her breasts… and he measures. He goes as far as to Al Franken her breast, his hand hovering close. And it’s not, to me, the devil and angel of Animal House fame that stops him from touching her intimately. It’s the moment when he can cross a line and give her a reason to never trust him again. And instead, he just goes to sleep, close enough for now.
If you are reading this and are angered by the idea of a potential sexual assault being, ultimately, a positive moment for this potential couple, my apologies. I don’t think that is my point or the movie’s point.
There is also the very real chance that she would have responded to his touch in a positive way… going with the moment. But for me, the moment is about him understanding that he cannot take from this person… he has to let her give. It’s a lesson that a lot of couple’s never come to understand.
I can’t say, as many have, that this is Paul Thomas Anderson’s best work or the achievement of his accumulated film history. His film’s capture moments in time… moments in lives… people trying to make decisions about themselves.
For me, it will be hard to ever top Phantom Thread… probably because it speaks to me in ways to which the other movies don’t aspire. But that’s me.
What Paul has achieved over time is to bring deep, rich conversations into the conventions of cinema. Every movie is like months of late night, passionate discussions over too-late burgers and pie and coffee and maybe a few shots with one of the smartest guys you know who really, really wants to get to the truth. He doesn’t take the easy road. He doesn’t hang onto his ideas so hard that he can’t hear others. But he - and the magic is that he somehow allows us in - figures it out. And the result is almost always that people never really figure it out. We remain humans. Flawed beings. Searching beings.
This is also, by the way, why people love Bong Joon Ho, the Coens, Kubrick, and this year’s Drive My Car, and Peter Jackson’s documentaries, and so many so rare works of art.
If you aren’t wanting to engage in that conversation, cool. Live on. Not every person is for everybody. Not every piece of art is for everybody. This is the nature of the beast.
But Paul engages in unexpected ways, every time out. And I am thankful for that.