Rated R for a pretty good reason. I mean, the movie hovers over the idea of statutory rape for the entire time. There's a lot of sexual content, but very little of it is on camera. There's language throughout, coupled with vice galore. While there is no nudity or honest violence, it does definitely feel like an R-rated movie.
DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson
Okay, I now realize that I pretended to like Phantom Thread more than I did. It's stuff like Licorice Pizza that makes me re-fall in love with Paul Thomas Anderson. But part of coming to this realization is this continual return to the fact that I'm a hypocrite and that I apparently lack all integrity. See, Paul Thomas Anderson never hides the central problem of the film. (I did read an article right before this saying that racism is the film's biggest problem, but I'll try to get to that later.) This is a story from the first minute to the last about the inappropriateness of a relationship. Gary is 15 but looks 21. Alana is 26, but looks 22. Anderson never forgets to remind us that this relationship can't be. It's central to the story. It's what creates tension for the entire film. But why am I so in love with Licorice Pizza when I'm so against Call Me By Your Name?
This is me being super vulnerable. I hated Call Me By Your Name. When every single one of my students preached the glory of that movie, I railed against the fact that it was not about the homosexual element, but the pedophilia element. If this is the case, why am I so gung-ho about Licorice Pizza? On the surface, I had to questions whether or not I had some deep rooted biases that I thought I had eliminated by this point. But I think the idea behind it is that Licorice Pizza is one of the most unromantic romance films ever. Everything in this screams that Alana and Gary getting together is the worst idea ever. While the film may end with them running off into the sunset, it has a lot in common with The Graduate. A lot of people see the ending of The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman making a dramatic display in a church to run off with Mrs. Robinson and say that is super romantic. But the bus sequence concluding the film screams that this was a dumb idea to its core and that love doesn't work that way. In a way, Anderson gives the same message. Instead of copying The Graduate, he allows us to come to the reality of the situation before that moment. By the time that Alana and Gary get together, we are all on the same page about the fact that Gary is toxic as heck and that Alana deserves better.
Really, Gary only becomes Alana's real consideration when she views how selfish the real world is. Sure, there's a very uncomfortable amount of flirting through the movie, especially when Gary achieves a certain amount of success. But we know that it's a terrible idea in those moments. It's why Alana and Gary's relationship changes its dynamics so many times. Despite starting as a flirtation on Gary's part, it quickly evolves / devolves into a brother / sister thing and, even more so, a mother / son thing. They spiral into this toxic place. But the film is a criticism of all relationships and how even adults are just children. From this perspective, I probably have to criticize Alana's choice to end up with Gary because that's an oversimplified version of relationships. However, look at the other potential suitors in the film. Alana, in an attempt to claw her way out of her arrested development, discovers that she is just being used by a man who wants power. Matthew verbally says his disgust for men and how they're abusive. Similarly, Jack Holden seems to have an interest in Alana, but he literally throws her off the bike doing a childish stunt, a return to the nostalgia of his youth. Gary, from those perspectives, who has had multiple jobs and, despite his toxic male behaviors, seems the most put together.
But it is gross. Gary has moments of maturity. They're highlighted in the closing jump cuts to previous parts of the movie. His running has been for Alana. But Gary also handles any kind of rejection as offense. When Alana sets firm boundaries, he keeps pushing until she feels disgusted with him. While played for laughs, when Alana shows him her breasts, he wants more. She leaves angrily, knowing that Gary will always want more and more because he's fundamentally unsatisfied with a platonic relationship. He lights up a cigarette and drives off with a car that he has no right driving because he's trying to show dominance in the most caustic way imaginable. Yeah, there's something about the two of them kissing that ends the film that seems like the cap on a story, but that story doesn't have a happy ending. It simply has the result of a relationship.
And that's where I think the difference is between Call Me By Your Name and Licorice Pizza lies. Call Me By Your Name indulges in the forbidden nature of underage love and then romanticizes it. Licorice Pizza uses the taboo of underage love to create distance between the characters by keeping them apart. Like a good TV show, it knows that getting the two characters together is death to the drama. I don't think that Anderson wanted to make a movie about people's reactions to an inappropriate relationship. He was making a movie about something that can't and shouldn't be. By putting them together earlier, it would have been something very different. It would have been about the romance versus the interaction and the distance that the two of them went.
I don't think that I have an appropriate voice to make a strong call on the racist elements in the film. For those not in the know, there's a running gag of a buffoon out of the early '70s. Anderson mocks the racist attitudes of White Americans when it comes to treating Asians with respect. He plays up the concept of the exotic Orient. Very much like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, he does the accent when speaking to his wives. It's very funny and it does point more at the ignorance of White America than anything. But I'm also in the camp that I don't want people to be offended for something that isn't necessarily authentic. Paul Thomas Anderson is a White dude. He's a guy who has a mother-in-law of Asian descent, but that's a little bit of a stretch. While I find the joke extremely funny, I can easily see the offense that comes from a joke like that.
But I have to say that I absolutely loved this movie. I mean, it's really funny. But more than anything, especially in the light of There Will Be Blood or Phantom Thread, Licorice Pizza reminds me that Paul Thomas Anderson, besides being a visual genius, is a fun director. This movie made me laugh and cheer more than any movie I've seen for the Academy Awards up to this point. Honestly, at this point, it's my frontrunner. It's a gorgeous movie that has a gross premise at the center of it. Maybe something comes from the culture of women acting as predators is something that is something more acceptable cinematically, but it's still pretty darned gross. I know. I seem to be really toeing a line here, but I dug it so much, despite my overly moralistic attitude towards storytelling.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.