by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper
My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 92% Certified Fresh
PLOT: The story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973.
You know that old saying, “You’ll either love it or hate it”? I’m afraid that doesn’t apply to Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Licorice Pizza. At least not for me.
The plot: Gary, an impossibly precocious and business-savvy 15-year-old child actor, still in high school (the movie opens with him getting his yearbook pictures taken), develops a crush on Alana, a 25-year-old production assistant, and pursues her – and pursues her and pursues her – while she wrestles with her own emotions and the fact that, dude, he’s fifteen years old. He calls a shaky truce on his emotions so they can remain friends, and in the process they…let me see if I can remember it all…go on several auditions, help Gary’s mom with her public relations business, open their own business selling waterbeds, fly to Texas (?) and back, fall in and out of “like” with each other several times by attempting to form physical relationships with people their own age, meet an actor who is clearly meant to be William Holden, and by the end of the movie they finally seem to be mutually in love with each other. Sort of. Maybe. It depends on your point of view. But moving on…
For all its faults, Licorice Pizza did keep me grinning for virtually all of its longish running time, and it also made me laugh out loud many times. Only in a Paul Thomas Anderson – or maybe also a Tarantino movie – could you have a scene where a mixed-race couple (white husband/Asian wife) have a conversation in which the white husband speaks the most atrociously absurd, cringeworthy pidgin Japanese to his wife, and it gets an earned laugh for the sheer audacity of the scene. Is it offensive? Certainly, if this happened in real life, the husband would be cancelled faster than an all-Latino sitcom. (Ba-ZING.) But I’ve gotta be honest, that was one of the great belly-laughs in the film. I found it funny in the same way that Robert Downey Jr. in blackface in Tropic Thunder was funny, in that the people committing the offenses are clearly dumber than sacks of sand and so have absolutely no idea they’re being morons. But I’ll leave the Theory-of-Comedy discussion for another review…
In true P.T. Anderson fashion, the dialogue is as sharply written as anything by Sorkin or Mamet. Not a second is wasted on unnecessary exposition or explanation. (Although, to be fair, a LITTLE more explanation would have been preferred…more on that later.) Each scene gets to the point, either directly or indirectly, with surgical precision.
There are some editing jumps that will keep a viewer on their toes. The movie shows a scene of Gary testing a waterbed for the first time, then jumps to him hawking them at a “Teen Fair”, then suddenly he has his own storefront, sales reps, and a bank of telephone operators. We can only assume that he had the capital, the licenses, and the business logistics to not only make this happen but to clearly be successful at it, at least for a while. I mean, he is fifteen years old, so why wouldn’t he know how to do all this, right?
[Actually, now that I think about it, there IS a precedent for this plot: Rushmore, Wes Anderson’s 1998 film about another precocious 15-year-old boy who falls in love with a much older woman and spends most of the rest of the film attempting to woo her while she wrestles with her emotions and her desire for a relationship with someone who was born in the same decade as she was. Do with that information what you will.]
When the age gap between Gary and Alana was explained very clearly at the beginning of the film, I was pretty sure the two of them could never be in a relationship, and I was taken out of the movie a little. However, as the movie progressed, the film’s charm and effortless wit made me forget how far apart they were. Gary behaves in such a way that I forgot just young he’s supposed to be, and I forgot just how old Alana is supposed to be. The film expertly took me by the hand and got me rooting for them to be together, despite how – let’s not mince words – illegal it would be for them to be together.
SPOILER ALERT, SPOILER ALERT, SPOILER ALERT, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
So the movie does its job, that I’ll grant you. But when the film ends, and Gary and Alana kiss and go running off screen together, and Alana finally says, “I love you, Gary”, and the credits started rolling…I stared at the screen, raised my arms in supplication to the scrolling credits, and said, “Say WHAT…?” Because it was at that point, after the abrupt ending, that I started to have questions. Lots and lots and LOTS of questions.
If Gary is a high school student – and he is a high school student – when did he ever go to class? The film never shows us. One could make the case of, well, you have to ASSUME he’s going to class. Okay…but when? In between auditions and plane flights to a live taping of a musical number in front of a live audience and opening not one but two small businesses where his employees seem to be composed entirely of his school-age buddies? And one of these businesses involves him buying a large quantity of pinball machines to start an arcade. Where is this money coming from?! His acting paychecks? He’s not a major star. He’s a minor bit player, at best. And yet, not only can he finance two small businesses on his own (he has a mother, but we only meet her twice), but the maître d’ at a local restaurant knows him by name and treats him like Hollywood royalty – he even has his own table at this place.
And let’s talk about that ending. She says, “I love you, Gary”, and they run off screen. What does this mean? Does this mean she’s about to embark on a physical relationship with an underage boy? One could say, “Well, of COURSE she’s not going to start going steady with him or anything. She’s twenty-five and he’s fifteen! The idea’s absurd and icky! No, there’s no way anything like that can happen between the two of them, so this ending is just her affirming her love for him in a platonic way because that’s all they will ever be able to be to each other: devoted friends.”
Yeah, but…are we just supposed to make that assumption out of thin air? The entire movie has been working on getting these two characters together, and it ends (quite suddenly) with that happening, and…we’re just supposed to think, “Yeah, but they’re not TOGETHER-together”? If that’s the case, I feel there should have been a little more information to make that clearer.
I’m reminded of something I read where a college professor is teaching film students about Hal Ashby’s prescient film Being There. MORE SPOILER ALERTS, kind of unavoidable here…but the film ends with a humble gardener with an IQ in the double-digits walking serenely out onto the surface of a lake. The professor asks his students what this final scene means. And the students say, well, there’s a sunken pier just out of sight under the water, or the water is quite shallow, or they even theorize that the scene isn’t really happening, it’s just in the gardener’s mind.
The professor pounds on his desk and says, “No, no, NO! What you see is what you get. The guy is literally walking on water. Nothing in the film mentions a sunken pier or low water levels, and we’ve never seen any of his dreams before now. Any explanations you’re giving for why he’s walking on water, aside from his ability to actually do it, is just you bringing something the scene that isn’t there.”
That’s what I think about the ending of Licorice Pizza. It’s problematic because, to me, it doesn’t matter what I think happens at the end when she proclaims her love and they run off. The movie is clearly indicating they DO wind up in a relationship. We can infer all we want about what may have happened after the cameras cut, but we are left with what the film has presented to us. And that left me feeling weirdly uncomfortable.
To be sure, there are movies out there, acknowledged masterpieces, that depend heavily on the viewer doing some heavy lifting. The one that comes to mind the most for me is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film whose ending is suitably awesome and beautiful…but what in the Sam Hill does it MEAN? Do enough reading and analysis and there are conclusions to be made that make sense and which elevate that film.
But Licorice Pizza is no 2001. This is just not the kind of movie that lends itself to that kind of theoretical dissection. If there are buried truths to be discovered, fair enough, but how much digging am I expected to do? As the great man once said, “If you have to ask what something symbolizes, it doesn’t.”
First impressions are very important. And my first impression of Licorice Pizza is that, while it’s solidly acted and directed, and the dialogue is pitch perfect, the story itself leaves something to be desired.
[P.S. A friend of mine said that if you were to switch the genders in this movie, it would never have been made. I might agree, were it not for the fact that there have already been several films already made about that very topic, that is, an adult man in an inappropriate relationship with a much younger or underage woman. American Beauty, Lolita, Lost in Translation, etcetera. Maybe Lost in Translation is not the best example, as both characters are legal adults, but you get my point. Frankly, I thought the gender switching in Licorice Pizza was kinda refreshing…up to a point.]