Paul Thomas Anderson hasn’t made a bad movie, and I don’t think he could if he tried. Well, I mean maybe if he tried. He could keep the camera out of focus or give all the actors shrooms or make a shot-for-shot remake of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. And Licorice Pizza, Anderson’s ninth film (and the third nominated for Best Picture) is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad movie. It’s anchored in two amazing lead performances (neither of whom have acted before) and has very funny and touching moments and definitely has a light and easy feel with which Anderson drives the film effortlessly.
But Licorice Pizza does have one big problem. Perhaps, more accurately, the movie has two problems rolled into one. The first has to do with the core of the relationship between the film’s two main characters. And the second is the film’s (and filmmaker’s) complete lack of interest in even wanting to address the first problem. If this sounds layered and confusing, it shouldn’t surprise you.
After all, it’s a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
Let’s just dive right in with a brief summary (spoiler-free) of the film and then we’ll address my main issue with the film:
Licorice Pizza is the story of the relationship between Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana (Alana Haim, of the band Haim). Throughout the film, Gary pines desperately for Alana and tries to get her to help him with the various businesses he starts up (the film is based, in part, of one of Anderson’s old friends). Alana rejects Gary multiple times, though you see the jealousy in each when the other starts a romantic relationship with someone else.
This description is nothing problematic. However, here is the catch: at the start of the film, Gary is 15. Alana is 25.
So, you can see why that might make people uncomfortable.
There is a moment in the film where Alana is talking to one of her sisters (whom are all played by the rest of Haim) and she asks if it’s weird that she hangs out with a 15-year old and her friend, then admitting that she thinks it’s a little weird.
This is the only time Licorice Pizza addresses the age gap between the two.
It’s not just in the movie; Paul Thomas Anderson himself seems to have no interest in discussing it during the press he’s given for the film. I could only find one quote where he addressed it, and it’s in an interview with the New York Times. Here are the entirety of his thoughts on the issue:
There’s no line that’s crossed, and there’s nothing but the right intentions. It would surprise me if there was some kind of kerfuffle about it, because there’s not that much there. That’s not the story that we made, in any kind of way. There isn’t a provocative bone in this film’s body.
Now, I have no reason not to believe Anderson and take him at his word. If he says he didn’t make Licorice Pizza to make an issue of this and that it wasn’t the intention of the film, I have no choice but to assume he’s telling the truth. But then, why create the age difference the way he does? You could have made Hoffman’s character 18 (or Haim’s character, for that matter) and it would not have changed the film a single iota in terms of plot or tone. But it clearly was important for Anderson to have this age difference- early in the film, it is what allows Alana to be Gary’s adult chaperone on a promotional trip to New York City. You cannot have this age difference between these characters, refuse to mention it, and then be surprised when people consider it a tacit endorsement of this relationship, which clearly has some creepy elements to it.
Licorice Pizza has caused a great deal of backlash, with people being offended and expressing outrage. The problem is, they’re all being angry at the wrong thing.
The film came under fire for a different reason than the age difference between the two characters. The group Media Action Network for Asian Americans has called for an awards boycott of the film as they have taken issue with the character of Jerry (played by John Michael Higgins) and how he speaks with a horrendously racist accent when speaking to his first, and then second, wife, both of whom are Japanese. And I totally understand how someone could watch that and be offended.
The difference between this issue with the film and mine is that Jerry is clearly played as an idiot. Yes, you could easily say that Anderson has Higgins playing the character this way for a laugh. But the laughs are not coming because speaking that way is funny, it’s because we’re laughing at how stupid and pathetic Jerry is. The film isn’t celebrating Jerry, it’s attacking him directly.
But Alana, as a character, is never attacked. Sure, she is shown to have flaws. She’s an immature character purposelessly drifting through the world. She makes terrible choices with men, whether it’s an acting peer of Gary’s (played by Skyler Elizondo) or an older actor (Sean Penn) and that leads her to find approval through the teen whom harbors a long-standing crush. But her relationship with Gary is never dealt with from an age-perspective with the exception of the one time I mentioned. And when it’s never explored within the film or explained outside of the film, then what choice are we, as audience, left to think other than, “Oh, Anderson clearly feels like this is ok?”
Licorice Pizza‘s biggest problem seems to be that it fails to realize how problematic it is.