Let me say right off the top, I hated this movie. Not because it was poorly made but because it is poorly conceived. The premise of Licorice Pizza is absurd and creepy. It’s a coming “of age” romantic comedy in which a 15-year old boy and a 25-year old grown ass woman fall in love. The entire experience of the film was uncomfortable, the movie doesn’t view the age gap critically in any way whatsoever, and the age gap does nothing to change the story or the message of the film. It’s exactly the same movie if the boy is 20 instead of 15. There is no discernible reason for this film to exist and I’m honestly startled and confused by the positive reception it has gotten. I’ve seen it called a masterpiece and one of the best movies of the year by other critics, it’s gotten a ton of awards nominations and will probably get several more at the Oscars. The only response to Licorice Pizza’s acclaim I’ve been able to muster to this point is “…HOW???”
Typically I give movies a letter grade A+ through F, but it’s hard to do that for this film. I write all of my reviews trying to answer the question “is this worth people going to see in a movie theater?” but my own disgust with this movie seems so far detached from other people’s actual experience seeing it that I don’t know how to answer that either. How do you grade an assignment that you believe shouldn’t even exist but everyone else seems to think is the best thing ever? I don’t know. But they haven’t taken away my WordPress log in yet so I get to write all my thoughts out anyway. Let’s chat, weirdos.
So, why the hell are people excited about this movie?
If you’ve been to the movie theater at just about any point in the last 3 months, you’ve probably seen the trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film Licorice Pizza. I’m at the movies a lot, and I’ve seen that trailer no less than 20 times. The 2-minute teaser is somewhat compelling but not in any particularly original or distinctive way. David Bowie’s Life on Mars builds in the background as you see a rather generic looking boy, Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and a generic but better looking girl, Alana Haim of the band Haim, flirting with each other. The music stops and Bradley Cooper (the GAWD) pops on screen. Then the music resumes and you see more bland coming of age romantic comedy bits including Haim saying “do you really want to see my boobs?” and then slapping the boy when he asks to touch them. All of it tells you very little about what makes this movie different from any other movie like it. The only distinguishing thing about it being that it’s written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and the cast features big names. Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Benny Safdie and Maya Rudolph all appear.
Since the 1990s PTA has put out a slew of acclaimed films like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, The Master and Phantom Thread. Anderson has 8 Oscar nominations so far including directing 2 Best Picture nominees. Additionally, there have been 9 acting performances in PTA films nominated. And with the glowing reception of Licorice Pizza there’s likely to be at least a couple more nominations added to that list. And even though Paul Thomas Anderson has never made a blockbuster hit at the box office, he’s built up a dedicated cult following amongst some movie nerds (not me though, I don’t really stan for any Directors).
All of this context is important for Licorice Pizza. Most people have no clue what it’s about. But Paul Thomas Anderson made it, there’s actors in it they want to see, and it’s been getting rave reviews. So the hype is insane. I went to an advanced screening of the movie here in Houston, the only showing of the movie here before it officially releases nationwide on Christmas Eve, and the theater was packed wall to wall. People were literally sitting on the floor in the aisles down front.
Why the hell did Paul Thomas Anderson make this movie?
I sat in the theater extremely uncomfortable throughout the film. Parts of it were very funny and entertaining, until you remember that what you’re watching is a crime against a minor played like it’s some sort of inspiring love story. The movie itself is hardly skeptical about the situation at all. Alana, the 25-year old female lead who should soon be a registered sex offender, mentions a couple times that it’s “weird” that she hangs out with a 15-year old and his friends all the time, but that never stops her from doing it. Obviously the 15-year old – again, 3 years away from being old enough to legally consent – is all-in on the romance. There’s no outside pressure on the “couple” from reasonable people for them to go their separate ways or for Alana to go to prison. Everyone who knows about their “relationship” is fully in support. The movie ends with what is supposed to be a happy, triumphant moment where they live happily ever after. I kept waiting and waiting for the moment someone, ANYONE other than me realized this was fucking awful. But that moment never came. The movie ends on a “good for them!” moment. I was disgusted when the credits rolled and had to immediately ask the @1TakePod group chat “why the hell does that movie exist???”
So why did PTA make this movie? What was the reason that he decided it was a good idea to make a movie about statutory rape that treats this sexual predation like it’s some neat and cool part of being a kid and growing up? I looked it up after I saw the movie. Apparently the official answer is that back in 2001, Paul Thomas Anderson walked past a middle school on picture day where he saw a kid pestering one of the female photographers. The gears in a very twisted mind began to turn and PTA imagined the young boy he just saw having a relationship with that adult woman. PTA over time added some stories he had heard from a friend who was a former child actor and that’s how Licorice Pizza came in to being. I should have known about this weird shit before seeing the movie. That’s on me.
Why the hell do people like this movie so much?
Like I mentioned at the top, nothing that is entertaining or worthwhile about this movie changes in any way if this is a legal relationship between a 20-year old and a 25-year old. Hell, this could be two people who are the same age and it’s the same movie. But I’m not sure if that’d actually be a good movie.
Nearly everything that’s funny, and as uncomfortable as it was parts of it are undeniably hilarious, has nothing to do with the age gap and very little to do with the main plot. Bradley Cooper’s bit role as Jon Peters is the best part of the film and it has almost nothing to do with advancing the story. There’s a bunch of subplots where Gary starts a waterbed business and a pinball arcade, they help do PR for a Japanese restaurant owned by John Michael Higgins, they help out on a Mayoral campaign for Benny Safdie, they’re at a bar where Sean Penn does a motorcycle stunt, etc. Some work better than others. But all these vignettes are discarded immediately once they’re over. We just focus on the next random thing this sex offender and her victim are doing.
To the film’s credit, the performances are good. Alana Haim is a revelation. She’s definitely got a future as an actor as she nailed both the comedy and the drama this role required. Cooper Hoffman is good as well but Bradley Cooper steals the show in his all too brief time on screen. I’d rather watch a Jon Peters movie starring him, honestly. Everyone else involved gives solid to great performances as well. The cinematography looks incredible, perfectly evoking the feeling of 1970s California. Parts of the script had everyone in my theater howling because the movie is very funny. Critics who love this film cite that humor, PTA’s directing, the performances, and the nostalgia. Stans are calling Licorice Pizza one of his best films (I wouldn’t know).
But for me, that’s not nearly enough to make the movie actually good. Things just *happen* in this movie with no rhyme or reason. It’s a compilation of stories that are only tangentially related to the sex crime happening at the center of the movie, and they all mean absolutely nothing. The movie isn’t teaching anything about the human condition or love or the pitfalls of life as an aspiring actor or anything like that. You’re just watching a 25-year old and a 15-year old fall in love with each other and crack jokes along the way. Sex crimes and vibes. Apparently for a lot of people who work as film critics (92% of 119 critics on Rotten Tomatoes so far) that’s enough to make a great movie.
But I’m still here wondering why the hell we did any of this.
Thanks for reading and as always, #SupportFlorencePugh