Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest character study, Licorice Pizza, combines teen and young adult drama with absurd tasteless comedy to show how America’s values have historically caused the abuse of natural resources that destroy our economy, and in turn, our relationships. This movie is set during the hysterical period of the 1970s, but if it weren’t for the cars and the hairdos, you’d think it was a movie about today. But I know what you’re thinking: Why on earth is it called “Licorice Pizza?”
Well, to answer that question, I’ll start by saying that there are no pizzas nor licorice in the entire movie, they’re never seen nor mentioned. So rather, it’s more about the idea of candy on a cheap savory meal that is metaphorically carried on throughout the film. So like that scavenger hunt for everything eaten in the movie to see where the pizza and licorice come in, the meaning of the story is all in the hidden details, of which there are plenty. One of those includes the shocking fact that they didn’t actually use a phone number that starts with 555! Most movies have to use that since no real-life phone number starts with 555, but this movie broke that rule and gave its world a whole needed layer of realism! There are other modes of mastery proven by the detailed use of numbers, such as the funny way a minor character uses the number 69 to enhance a moment of sexual tension. As all this happens, the two leads, named Gary (15-years-old) and Alana (25-years-old) share an absolutely irresistible tension; even when they’re fighting throughout the first half you want to know where their conflict will go from there… only for the much slower second half to test your patience.
Yes, this ambitious project is not for everyone’s tastes. If eating a licorice pizza sounds too vile for you, then you most likely won’t like this movie’s questionable taste in humor. There’s already been plenty of criticism about its blatant racism toward Japanese people, which in actuality is a perfectly valid complaint—Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision results in a pretty repulsive treatment toward Japanese women. In an early scene, a White man mocks a Japanese accent in front of a Japanese woman, and in the very first scene, Alana states that she doesn’t know what Japanese food is. I’m pretty sure average Americans back then have heard of Japan, and just because it’s a movie set in the 1970s doesn’t mean it has to treat people of color the same way a movie made back then did. But even when looking at the problematic themes from a 2021 lens, it’s quite irresponsible in how it beautifies a pedophilic romance; if the gender roles were reversed, this movie would never have made it past the green light stage.
There are other dialogue issues as well, such as the scene when Gary and Jon Peters (played by the perfectly cast Bradley Cooper) go back and forth for way too long about how the name “Streisand” is pronounced, much like how half the verbal humor in a lot of star-driven “comedies” resort to rambling endlessly for laughs. The distracting sound mix also has a problem with its use of songs, as it often plays over the engaging dialogue. But it’s at least a good thing that no music plays in important moments, such as the clever ways Alana describes the water bed to make it sound sexual.
Paul Thomas Anderson proves other instances of exceptional directing; he knows when to slow down and when to speed up as he frames every shot with the minutest perfection. He knows how to crop you right into Gary and Alana’s intimate conflict… even when they’re not sharing a scene together. His regular costume designer Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread, There Will Be Blood) designs Alana’s wardrobe so that there are moments when her nipples intentionally poke through her shirt, so you could tell why Gary is sexually drawn to this woman who’s a full decade older than himself. He even tries to sound older than his age as he’s motivated by his puppy love.
Not that it amounts to making either of these two fully relatable or likable, as Gary has no character development, and Alana is a total jerk to her parents. Instead of rounding out the script to crisp perfection, Anderson relies on the setting to tell the story. Indeed, everything about this feature film just screams the 1970s, right down to how people back then didn’t listen to their emotions enough. Its approach to the gas shortage crisis fits in with today’s issues of natural resource shortage, as does the shockingly absurd fact that pinball machines were once illegal.
To boost, you should find that this movie has some of the most perfect acting you may ever see. While it may seem like a story that’s hard to believe, the aura of authenticity will be plenty to help you buy into it. However, there are times when the color grading sets the contrast up too high, which makes the overall look of the motion picture pretty gross. The excessive grain and noise give the impression that it was made back in the era, but not in a good way, so those elements could potentially take you out of the enjoyment.
So going back to my question: “Why is this movie called Licorice Pizza?” It’s actually quite a deceptively simple answer: it’s a work of bad taste. While one could argue that pineapple on pizza could work, it would take an awful lot of convincing to prove that licorice is a reasonable pizza topping, and it would be even harder to prepare the ingredients in such a way so that they would work harmoniously together. That’s what Paul Thomas Anderson does here: mix together ingredients that to a sane person should come off as nothing besides disgusting, and makes it work in a way that bursts your bubble about what you thought about the health of our economy, which in actuality is not much different than it was fifty years ago.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!