I’m going to be completely honest: I was real disappointed with this film. I’m a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, as both a writer and a director, but Licorice Pizza was not it.
Right from the start, I was uncomfortable. Our two main characters, Alana, played by Alana Haim, and Gary, played by Cooper Hoffman, have a ten year age difference. Alana is twenty-five years old, while Gary is a mere fifteen. I quickly looked up the synopsis for the film, as I was pretty sure the two main characters in the film were love interests, but after hearing the age gap, I was hoping I had misread the plot of the film. Unfortunately, I did not. And, I spent the entire two hours and thirteen minutes wondering why Alana is interested in this fifteen year old boy. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Regardless of how mature he may seem, he’s still not even old enough to legally drive. And that’s just creepy. Made it feel like a reverse Woody Allen film, honestly.
What is so strange about Licorice Pizza, at least for me, is that even though I was weirded out by what I just mentioned, I couldn’t stop watching the film. There’s something about the film’s aesthetic that I found absolutely captivating. I suspect, though, that’s because I’ve lived in California for so long, now. Had I seen this film, having never been to the west coast, I don’t know that I would find the overall feel of the film as enthralling. I would definitely find the events of the film weirder, though.
Set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973, a number of seemingly weird events take place in these character’s lives.
“Seemingly weird” if you’ve never spent a certain amount of time in Southern California. Having been here a while, myself, I can tell you that SoCal is a very strange place to live. Things that are “normal” here aren’t “normal” anywhere else. And Licorice Pizza definitely shows that. I’m still not certain how this fifteen year old is able to open a waterbed store, and then later a pinball arcade (when it becomes legal again. Did you know pinball was outlawed in California until 1973? Shit is wild). Especially since the beginning of the film led me to believe that Gary was trying his hand at acting. He seems to be a jack of all trades, but he’s only fifteen. I wasn’t alive in 1973 and I wasn’t in California. So, anybody that was, can you tell me how lax it was on, like, children running businesses and whatnot? Because I’d love to know.
Plot aside, the film is very well acted. A very interesting choice, I thought, was that the entire Haim family is in the film. Music fans will know the Haim sisters from their band, Haim. Paul Thomas Anderson (herein referred to as PTA) has directed a number of Haim music videos, so it’s not a surprise to have the three sisters in his film. I did find it interesting that he used Alana Haim’s actual parents in the film, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that no script was used during these family interactions. They were given the direction the scene needed to go and that was it. That truly helped the family feel natural within the realm of the film.
Licorice Pizza is the acting debut of Cooper Hoffman, son of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, a common staple in PTA’s films. It was a bit strange to see, as Cooper Hoffman has many of his father’s mannerisms. It was uncanny, at times. Honestly, though, Hoffman has a promising acting career in front of him. He did very well.
As per usual with a PTA film, there were a number of larger named actors playing bit parts. Bradley Cooper plays an interesting version of the real life movie producer Jon Peters. Honestly, I don’t know how accurate his performance was, but I found it enjoyable and imagine it’s not too far off from truth. Benny Safdie (of the Safdie brothers) plays politician Joel Wachs, Tom Waits plays a fictional director Rex Blau, who is based on the real life Sam Peckinpah, and Sean Penn plays actor Jack Holden, a fictionalized version of the real life actor William Holden. Christine Ebersole plays Lucy Doolittle, a fictionalized version of Lucille Ball, and John C. Reilly, uncredited, plays Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster. Even Leonardo DiCaprio’s father, George DiCaprio, makes an appearance as the guy who invented the waterbed.
I cannot write about Licorice Pizza and not mention the elephant in the room: John Michael Higgins’ incredibly racist character of Jerry Frick. Again, a character based on a real person, Jerry Frick is about to open the first Japanese restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. When Jerry is speaking to anybody that is not his Asian wife, he speaks with his normal accent. However, when he speaks to his wife, he uses an unbelievably racist accent while speaking english to communicate with her, later even saying that he doesn’t even speak his wife’s native language. Even worse, half way through the film, he divorces one wife and marries another Asian woman, and a horrible joke gets made about the women looking the same. Now, I get that Jerry Frick is supposed to be dumb. He’s supposed to be seen as a buffoon. However, none of that comes off in that way. The Asian racism pulled me completely out of the film. It felt so out of place. And, although PTA has tried to justify keeping it in the film, I can’t wrap my head around any real reason to do so. It doesn’t add at all to the film and removing it would take absolutely nothing away from the plot and aesthetic of the film. It feels more hateful than anything. Which, honestly, I expect more from a man who is married to Maya Rudolph.
Licorice Pizza is an alienating film, I think. It relies so heavily on the southern California culture and lifestyle that it becomes unrelatable to those in other parts of the United States and the world. Had I not experienced my own SoCal weirdness living here, I would think the film is very far fetched and couldn’t possibly be rooted in reality. Honestly, I’m still reeling from the blatant racism in a film in the year 2021 and the creepy age gap between the two main characters. The only reason this film got any kind of acclaim, I think, is because it’s a PTA film. That’s it. Because it is easily one of his worst.