Licorice Pizza, 2022, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson — 2.5/5 Stars
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie, the lighthearted, slice-of-life 1970s romance Licorice Pizza, was on track to be one of the best films of the year. Anderson’s past work has established him as a household auteur in the industry, breaking onto the scene with Boogie Nights in 1997 and since wowing critics and audience alike with modern classics like There Will Be Blood and The Master. Trailers for Licorice Pizza excited moviegoers, teasing audiences with nostalgia and youthful awkwardness, set to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” In the weeks leading up to the Christmas Day release date, though, contention broke out over the film’s contents. When the film began screening in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles prior to its national release date, accusations of glorifying pedophilia, regarding the age gap between the two lead characters, emerged. Many defended this age gap, claiming that the depiction of the relationship did not equate to endorsement, and deflecting other criticisms as lacking in media literacy. It would seem, though, that the defenders of the distractingly large age gap relationship at the center of the film’s story have been blinded by their biases and their love for Anderson as a director. Not only does the film actively endorse the relationship, it seems to actively combat criticisms of it, frequently acknowledging the difference in maturity levels but proceeding with confidence all the same. It’s truly a shame, as breakout stars Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman are electric in their roles, and the film has some truly visually beautiful and funny moments, but the story is dragged down by its dated understanding of romance and power dynamics. The complete plot is spoiled in this review.
Hoffman plays the overly confident and ambitious Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old hustler who is also a child actor. Opposite him is Haim, who plays the 25-year-old, aptly named Alana Kane, a directionless young woman who yearns for the freedom and irresponsibility of youth. It’s clear what Anderson is trying to do here; contrasting the desire to grow up fast with the nostalgia of being a teenager, and demonstrating the way that contrast brings people together. The gap is so startlingly wide, though, that the developing romance between the two makes less and less sense as the story progresses. When Gary first pursues Alana, she shrugs him off, dismissing him as a “kid.” When he invites her on a date, though, she follows through and meets him at a local restaurant. As a viewer, the charitable reading of this situation, and of the story as a whole, is that Alana is entertaining Gary’s crush not because she’s genuinely interested in him romantically, but because she enjoys the attention and misses being a kid like him. Each step of the way, though, not a single aspect of the movie seems to acknowledge the unhealthy and, frankly, gross nature of their relationship. The two weave in and out of each other’s lives, Alana helping Gary with his water bed business, and later departing to work for a local political campaign. In one scene, the two poetically chase each other’s glances from across a room without a hint of irony. The charitable reading completely dissipates when the film ends, closing on what clearly intends to be a romantic kiss between the two, with the final line of dialogue being delivered by Alana: “I love you, Gary.”
If the film intends to comment on this age gap, the commentary is lost. The ages of the characters are mentioned on more than one occasion; the script certainly doesn’t shy away from the gap, but it doesn’t seem to care about fully acknowledging its implications either. When it comes down to it, Gary is a child and Alana is an adult, and that makes the viewing experience deeply uncomfortable. Even worse, the discomfort doesn’t seem to be remotely intentional.
It’s not like Licorice Pizza doesn’t have its moments. Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper, who are featured in smaller roles, deliver some seriously funny performances. The film’s imagery, in Anderson’s distinct style, is beautifully framed and staged, with slight overexposure of the 70mm film bathing the scenes in a bright, dreamy haze. The soundtrack is appropriately nostalgia-invoking, with some excellently integrated montages set to ‘70s hits. Hoffman and Haim demonstrate some real talent, and their characters feel fleshed out and believable in Anderson’s slightly surreal world. Unfortunately, though, the glaring issue at the core of the story greatly detracts from the ability to enjoy the film as a whole, weighing on the plot and making viewing the film disorienting and frustrating. While Anderson has never failed to demonstrate his craftsmanship, Licorice Pizza has undoubtedly left a mark on his previously flawless record.