Licorice Pizza Leaves a Bad Taste



Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

MGM/United Artists, 133 minutes, R (language, drugs, mentions of sex)




If you don’t know, a licorice pizza is an LP record. I’d sooner eat vinyl than ever see this film again. It is embarrassing, trite, and as empty as an LP’s center. Why this “comedy-drama-romance” (whatever that is) was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar can only be explained as still another Hollywood attempt to win over a youth market that long ago ceased to care.


The story, if there is one, involves the attraction of 15-year-old teen actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) to 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a photographer’s assistant. Rather than tell him to get back to run along until he’s old enough for his acne to clear, she finds herself hanging out with Gary and his child actor friends. Despite protestations to the contrary, she kind of likes Gary. Oooookaaaay. She’s not elderly, but Harold and Maude this ain’t. It’s unclear to me what exactly it is supposed to be. It’s very broad–in an empty desert wasteland kind of way.


The movie is set in California’s San Fernando Valley in 1973, presumably because it provides director Paul Thomas Anderson with an excuse to present all the boys and men in ugly clothing and bad haircuts, and all the girls and women in miniskirts, dorky bikinis, and death-defying shoes. The story takes place against a backdrop of technological change, shifting cultural trends, Richard Nixon, Vietnam, and the OPEC oil embargo. It’s fair to say that another thing this film isn’t is something you’ll ever find on the History Channel. It’s easy to see that Anderson is commenting upon the vacuity of 70s’ society. It’s easy, though, because Licorice Pizza is all surfaces and no depth.


The script is as thin as a blade of grass on a diet. See Gary flirt. Watch Gary enrage the host of the Lucy Doolittle Show (Christine Ebersole channeling Lucille Ball) by conking her with a pillow. Oh, Gary has a great idea: Let’s sell waterbeds and round up kids, teens, and Alana to run it. A bad encounter with a stoned, threatening, and Barbara Streisand-invoking Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) leads Gary to go into the arcade biz instead. Both ventures bear the name “Fat Bernie’s.”


That’s hardly the most-insulting aspect of the film. There is, for instance, Gary harassing Alana until she agrees to show him her “boobs.” William Holden and Mark Robeson stand-ins Jack Holden (Sean Penn) and Rex Blau (Tom Waits) show up in a demented scene that is so random it’s as if Anderson randomly plucked script pages from the binder. LA mayor-wannabe Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) inexplicably decides to risk everything once he sees Alana’s legs. What all of them have in common is a burning desire to have sex with Alana, as does Gary. Perhaps this is indirect commentary on Harvey Weinstein, but you’d have better luck locating the Holy Grail than making that connection. These offenses are amateur hour in comparison to the character of Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), a so-called businessman who pops up from time to time to trade in stereotypes of Japanese women. There are multiple comments on Alana’s “Jewish nose.”  It’s enough to make me believe that Anderson’s 1973 mise en scène is simply an excuse to engage in naughty little boy behavior for which he’d be pilloried were the setting a contemporary one.


Surely, you might argue, the movie is a quirky offbeat lampoon of shallowness Hollywood-style. Charles Yu did this brilliantly in his novel Interior Chinatown and so have movies as diverse as Adaptation, Barton Fink, Day of the Locust, The Player, and Sunset Boulevard. I probably do a disservice to mention these in the same breath as Licorice Pizza, a collection of vignettes in search of any semblance of unity. How many tortured devices can one cram into 133 minutes? Let’s see, Haim’s mother and sisters play her mother and sisters. How meta (not!). Cooper is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son. Leo DiCaprio’s father cameos as Mr. Jack, a cheesy emcee. Etc.


But let’s not quibble. At least Licorice Pizza has a good 60s’/70s’ soundtrack. Surely that must count for something, but I doubt it. I waited several months for this film to arrive via interlibrary loan, yet somehow that seemed shorter than the two plus hours I wasted on a concept as twisted as a stick of licorice. I never liked licorice.


Rob Weir

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