By Marc S. Sanders
Can you ever imagine topping your pizza with licorice? Seems weird, odd and just…well…no! That’s the message of Paul Thomas Anderson’s winning film Licorice Pizza.
As I watched the picture, I knew that many would not get the point. They may become bored or even think this is a weird movie. That’s what I thought when I first saw Anderson’s 1999 film, Magnolia. I loved that film, but that ending is…yeah…waaaaaay out there.
Anderson’s script centers on a 15-year-old boy named Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman; son of Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and the girl-SCRATCH THAT-woman, I mean, that he becomes enamored with named Alana (Alana Haim). Gary approaches Alana at his high school where he is about to have his class picture taken. She’s there working in a dead-end assistant position with the photographer. Fast dialogue takes place in this opening scene where Alana can’t take this kid seriously even though he’s a seasoned child actor, known throughout the San Fernando/Encino, California landscape among known casting directors and agents. Eventually, the relationship blossoms as Alana serves as an adult escort for Gary who has to go on a television program. (Mom was not available to accompany underage Gary; hence the word escort.) Soon after, it’s established that though Gary seems more mature than a typical 15-year-old because he’s had a career during most of his young life, Alana is in a limbo of not reaching adulthood yet, despite the number of her age.
Gary’s worth as an actor is expiring as he’s not the cute precocious kid that Hollywood is looking for anymore, and so he’s on his way to his next venture, never allowing himself to be set back. Why not sell the newest innovation of the early 1970’s? Waterbeds! Meanwhile, Alana does her best to move on to her next life changing chapter by dating an actor her age. However, things don’t work out. He was born Jewish, like her family, but he defiantly announces he’s an atheist over Shabbat dinner and will not recite the kiddush prayers.
The contrast in Gary and Alana’s progress through life in 1973 couldn’t be further separated from one another. Anderson writes these two characters as they are going in opposite directions. They are 10 years in age apart from one another. Gary doesn’t allow himself to be defeated when one business venture after another doesn’t pan out. Alana is short tempered and easily stuck in a rut, however, when things don’t go her way. This is the running theme of Licorice Pizza.
Other folks that I’ve discussed this film with find it weird that a 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old woman are hanging together and drawn to one another. Yeah, it’s weird, but it happens. Out there, there are unusual relationships or friendships. Spend a month working in a community theatre like I have and then tell me weird relationships don’t happen. Forget about whether they are legal or not. Forget about if it’s perverted. (Though, truly it really isn’t depicted in a perverted manner in Anderson’s film.) There’s a relationship between Alana and Gary where romance and attractiveness are certainly tested, but that doesn’t mean it’s ever consummated.
The fact that the relationship between the two characters is difficult on them and the audience is the point of Licorice Pizza. Anderson is a brilliant writer/director here because he has an ongoing visual theme happening. Often during the film, both characters are filmed running towards something. They are either running towards one another or something else or they are running away from each other. Gary and Alana seemingly know that this relationship could never come to an intimate, loving, romantic relationship. After all, he’s fifteen! She’s twenty-five! Yet, what Paul Thomas Anderson demonstrates is that no matter how physically fast you can run or how far you can run, these two characters will never, ever catch up to one another.
Gary yearns for Alana because lust interferes in most boys at age fifteen. Alana needs Gary, however. She tries and tries new opportunities to stimulate her daily lifestyle beyond Gary, like volunteering on a politician’s campaign or attempting to get in the good graces of a well-known Hollywood actor (a brief, yet memorable appearance from Sean Penn). Dating a man closer to her age also doesn’t work out. She’s outgrowing her Jewish home life that she’s still stuck in as well. Alas, it doesn’t ever work out for her.
The actress, Alana Haim, who takes on the role is surprisingly skillful. She’s tough and sad and lost. Anderson may have written the character, but Haim evokes the emotions that progress her listless story arc. Each time, something happens to Alana, I couldn’t help but feel such despair for her. I’ve been there. When I graduated high school! When I graduated college! When I broke up with a girl! When I had to move into an apartment! When I became a father! How many of us truly go on to the next plateau knowing exactly what to do? Some folks like Gary, can do that. Others like Alana just can’t. I think more people have been in her spot than they care to admit. Paul Thomas Anderson is brave enough to not present Alana’s triumph so easily or quickly. Movies don’t always have to show the happily ever after ending.
Gary moves from one chapter to another as well. Because he’s a well-known kid actor of yesteryear, he’s granted more resources than Alana, even though he’s ten years younger. He always gets a table at the local restaurant. He knows all the casting directors. He knows how to get around and get things started. Audiences are smarter and likely know that whether Gary is selling waterbeds in a run-down business shop or later turning the place into a pinball arcade (now that pinball machines are legalized; which I never knew they were illegal to begin with), he won’t become such a successful entrepreneur. Yet, that never fazes Gary. This is just the next big thing that occurs to Gary. So, he’ll just give it a go. The confidence Alana lacks in herself, Anderson gifts with the Gary character. Cooper Hoffman makes a grand debut with Anderson’s direction and character foresight. He’s definitely not performing in his father’s shadow here.
Licorice Pizza carries so much symbolism in the point to the story that you might not even realize how apparent it is until later when you reflect back on the film. Obviously, Paul Thomas Anderson is very careful to insist how far apart these two people are, not just in age, but in how they carry themselves and their lifestyles. However, he does not stop with just the two main leads. A side gag has a guy who’s the owner of a Japanese restaurant discuss an advertising campaign with Gary’s mother. A suggestion is proposed by Gary’s mom. The man then “translates” to the woman simply by repeating the same thing in English with a terribly awful Japanese accent and then the Japanese woman sitting next to the man speaks in her native tongue. The man carries himself as if he understands the woman and translates back to Gary’s mom in his own Americanized dialect. It’s shockingly funny how wrong and insulting this guy is. This guy knows nothing about Japanese cuisine or culture or what they say or what interests them and yet he’s trying to make a business venture out of it. It’s wrong and highly inappropriate (which makes the scene very funny), but it exists. It’s garish to watch this behavior, but there are thousands of insensitive people doing thousands of insensitive things every day; people who couldn’t be further apart from practicing what they truly were not destined to preach. If you stop and think for a second, you can’t deny that this is one more weird thing out there in the world that’s odd and yet probably exists somewhere down the street or in another state or another time. This guy has a connected with a Japanese woman without any concept of understanding or appreciation.
The title of Anderson’s film is never literally addressed. (Later, I read that Licorice Pizza was actually the name of a popular record store in California way back when.) Yet, my mind periodically went to its significance while watching the movie. Try eating pizza with a thick, doughy crust and topped with tough, taffy texture like licorice topped on it. I’ve never done it, but I’d imagine it’s hard, very hard, to swallow. So, while Alana and Gary are certainly friends, the hormones of a fifteen-year-old boy and the lonely, lost nature of a twenty-five-year-old woman becoming involved with one another are hard to digest as well. No matter how Gary and Alana approach their connection to one another it just does not work. Alana falls off a motorcycle at one point. Gary runs to her. We see that all the time in movies. But what’s he going to do when he reaches her to offer aid? What more can Gary do except to say “Are you okay?” Gary gets arrested during another time in the film. Alana runs after the police car Gary is handcuffed in, and tells him it’s going to be okay. Yet, what is she really going to do? She doesn’t know anybody like a lawyer or an adult that can help. She doesn’t have the capability of helping him.
Run as fast as you want. Run as far as you want. Gary and Alana can never, and will never, catch up to one another. They’ll never meet at an appropriate age, always living a decade apart. They’ll never share a commonality with each other that promises a loving and intimate relationship. So, while Licorice Pizza has a silly, comedic name, it’s truly a tragic story of impossible love.
Licorice Pizza is definitely one of the best, most inventive and sensitive films of the year.