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21st February 2022

Licorice Pizza: Good vibes only?

It’s 1973, and in the San Fernando Valley a long hot summer has just begun. On the school picture day, 15-year-old Gary Valentine, a precocious child actor meets Alana Kane, a frustrated, bitingly sarcastic 25-year-old perpetually stuck in adolescent ennui.
Licorice Pizza: Good vibes only?
Photo: Fabio Penna @ Flickr

It’s 1973. People sleep on beds made of water. There’s a fuel shortage. David Bowie’s Life on Mars has hit the charts. In the San Fernando Valley, a long hot summer has just begun. On the school picture day, 15-year-old Gary Valentine, a precocious child actor, meets Alana Kane, a frustrated, bitingly sarcastic 25-year-old perpetually stuck in adolescent ennui and a revolving door of employment. Based partially on the childhood of Paul Thomas Anderson’s collaborative friend, Gary Goetzman, Licorice Pizza is indulgently nostalgic.

Anderson famously prefers his actors to be influenced by their real lives when forming their characters. They often also share the same first name, thus blurring the lines between the real world and the onscreen world. Alana Kane is played by Alana Haim of Indie band Haim. She plays her character with such unwieldy energy that it seems that she is constantly on the precipice of a huge emotional outburst.

It’s refreshing to see a female character who has wholly unlikeable characteristics. Her jealousy and rage towards the world sometimes seem an appropriate response and occasionally entirely hyperbolic. Alana is a character who wastes little time with rationalism and prefers to instinctually react, inevitably enduring the resulting embarrassment. Opposite Alana is Gary Valentine, depicted by Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a frequent collaborator of Anderson’s. Hoffman adopts a stumbling bravado when playing Gary. He’s a charming businessman one moment and an insecure teen the next. The characterisation of both is well observed and often contradictory in a way that speaks to a larger human truth.  

Licorice Pizza is exactly what all coming-of-age films should be, it’s a two-hour-long hangout session with a perfectly curated soundtrack. Understanding how Alana and Gary rationalise the world around them, offering very few answers in the process, is what comprises a riveting character study in this laidback atmosphere. It emphasises the endless opportunities for the reinvention of the self and how the options feel more limited as time goes on.

The movie contrasts the protagonists by the stiffness of older characters, jaded producers, and actors. However, their relationship lacks the immediate jeopardy of Anderson’s other onscreen couples such as Barry and Lena from Punch Drunk Love or Alma and Reynolds in Phantom Thread. Anderson solves the rather problematic age difference between Alana and Gary by adopting a coming-of-age tone rather than foregrounding this questionable romantic subplot. 

The San Fernando Valley background is unmistakably seventies. Oozing with references and grainy, cigarette burned cinematography, the audience is firmly fixed in world that Anderson transports us back to. The story oscillates around with the frenzy of a pinball machine as each sequence could be isolated into an impressive short film. Put together the result is a hearty homage to a vanished time. For a movie that borrows its title from the colloquial term for an LP, the soundtrack should be stellar. And it is, we’re talking The Doors, Nina Simone, Chuck Berry and David Bowie. There’s a sequence where the characters dash for fuel as Life on Mars plays in the Californian sunshine. It’s a euphoric moment that demands to be seen on the big screen.

The film is very much reminiscent of Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Licorice Pizza’s fictional characters engage with real figures from the period, not shying away from being self-referential and unapologetically a film about film. The supporting cast add needed depth to the superficially minded protagonists. Benny Safdie gives a measured portrayal of the closeted politician Joel Wachs. A character who symbolised an oncoming future full of optimism for those with previously silenced voices. Similarly, Bradley Cooper portrays Jon Peters in a completely unhinged performance that will have your fingers itching to read Peters’ Wikipedia entry the minute the titles roll.

Licorice Pizza is a surprisingly funny film. Anderson employs his classic dry wit to quotidian situations. Much of the comedy is derived from Alana and Gary trying to make others jealous and embarrassing themselves instead. Moments like Alana sticking her tongue out at Gary across a restaurant while the ageing movie producer next to her shows zero interest particularly stand out as a moment of their tongue and cheek relationship. It’s remarkable how much effort is devoted to appearing not to try too hard. The more controversial jokes, on the other hand, seem to attempt a self-aware nod to the outdated aspects of the past. Viewers can smugly look back and think “well we’re not like that anymore”.

However, Anderson’s perhaps overly ironic depictions of the sexism, racism, and homophobia apparent in the seventies miss their marks. A repeated joke about a white restaurateur repeating back English to his Japanese wife with a terribly racialised accent lands very poorly and has very little necessity to the storyline. While the culturally ignorant restaurateur is the subject of the joke, it falls flat due to the cheapness of the gag and its foundation in racial caricature.

Anderson’s approach towards sexism is far more nuanced though. Alana’s frustration at the world she lives in is partly a response to the way the men around her objectify her. As an ageing woman, she recognises her perceived value in society is decreasing rapidly. She knows her sexuality and youthfulness are currency for male casting directors and bosses. The scene where Alana models in a bikini at the opening of their waterbed store perfectly observes the need to be desired without being objectified. It shows how acknowledgement of desirability can feel like a relief but quickly become claustrophobic. Unfortunately, this tenderness and understanding wasn’t shown to every female character in the film.

It is impossible to discuss Licorice Pizza without addressing the age gap central to the film. Alana is 25 (possibly older, her age is kept ambiguous throughout the film) and Gary is 15 when they first meet. Alana enacts several different roles in Gary’s life, some appropriate such as a chaperone, business partner, and driver, and some not so much. For much of the film, their relationship is kept platonic, despite Gary’s pining for Alana. However, by the end it does morph into something resembling a toxic romance. The jealousy the pair feels is often the emotion of a scorned lover.

However, none of the other characters dispute the relationship, except Alana herself, “do you think it’s weird I hang out with Gary and his fifteen year-old friends?”. Much of the controversy surrounding the film derives from its perceived advocation of grooming. Although these relationships do occur in the real world, is it excusable to translate them to film? The wide circulation of Licorice Pizza has provoked discussions about what we expect from the art we consume. Should all relationships be replicated in film? Is doing so inherently problematic and does it detract from the film’s other artistic merits?

Licorice Pizza’s runtime is packed with a myriad of adventures and a circus of big characters. Anderson’s evocation of the San Fernando Valley is so strong as to be almost sensory for the audience. He manages to create a nostalgic mixtape for a forgotten period- resigned to the past sometimes for the better. It’s a hazy summer memory where time seems to stretch out forever when the future is too distant to contend with. In the land of Licorice Pizza, it’s never life and death, only a quest for a good time.




Pip Carew is a third-year student at the University of Manchester studying Film Studies and English Literature. As head editor of the film section, she enjoys writing cultural journalism and has interviewed many industry professionals. After graduation Pip hopes to pursue a career in journalism with anyone who will let her write.

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