Licorice Pizza: Review

I wrote briefly on the joy of going to see Licorice Pizza in my defense of delightfully self-indulgent days, but I didn’t focus on the movie itself.

On New Year’s Eve, I was back in Columbia, Missouri, on my way back to Wyoming from Tennessee. I went to another screening of LP, and this one was at my beloved Ragtag Cinema. They were showing the film on glorious 35mm, and according to the projectionist, there are a limited number of 35mm prints circulating in the U.S. He said there were only 10, and if true, it’s a huge deal that this tiny theater in a sleepy college town on winter break would have a copy of it.

The projectionist wanted the audience to appreciate the magic of films on film, so he showed the first few moments of the movie in digital format, and then switched on the projector and ran the film from the top.

It’s so special to see a film presented on actual film. It feels even more like the magical time-traveling that movies are so easily capable of.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson still shoots on film, and he has the kind of reputation that grants him that ability, since shooting on film is very expensive. It seemed even more fitting for LP, which is a sort of coming of age story that takes place in 1970s San Fernando Valley and follows the adventures, plots, and schemes of Gary Valentine, a child actor aging out of his marketability but replacing that with the relentless hustle of a natural businessman. Love at first sight seems to be real when he meets Alana Kane, a 25-year-old directionless but fiery girl who was working at Gary’s school to help take his school pictures.

He doesn’t waste time; upon meeting her, he invites her to dinner. She laughs it off, calls it inappropriate due to their age difference, but she’s captivated by the young man’s confidence and charm. She ends up visiting him at his favorite restaurant for dinner, clearly against her better judgment but  she’s intrigued and has little else to do. And thus starts a friendship the pings between platonic and romantic, though unfulfilled, as one character would seem into the other, the other would be at a different place in life and not reciprocate.

This is essentially the film, or at least it’s the headspace of the two main characters as the film progresses without much of a plot. It’s a quintessential “good hang” kind of movie. You just inhabit a time and place in the world, and it feels so broken-in, so real, so real and true to a time and place that you don’t want to leave. And suddenly, the credits are rolling.

There was a ton of criticism leveled at this film, because it’s 2022 and that’s the only way things can exist now. Two major sticking points were a racist trope by __, who’s a restauranteur married to a Japanese woman (and then another, and discussed in a tossed-off casualness that suggests they were obtained by mail-order) and speaks in an over-the-top Japanese affectation. The other is the central relationship at the heart of the film. Gary and Alana share a 10-year age difference. He’s 15, and she’s 25 when we meet them. (There is some belief that the film covers multiple years, as Tasha Robinson mentioned on the Next Picture Show podcast, but it’s not acknowledged explicitly in the film.)

Detractors highlight the obvious: She’s an adult, and he is not. A sort of reductive argument emerges from that obviousness to focus on how inappropriate such age differences in relationships are, specifically when the critical line of demarcation that is the age of consent, or adulthood, is straddled.

Those, like me, who pooh-pooh that argument, do not condone those types of relationships. We do not seek to minimize the importance of age differences and power imbalances that can affect relationships. It seems overly cautious that I would have to make that point, but there is such a degree of absolutism in today’s critical discourse. “If you don’t reject this film because of this one problematic  detail, then you’re morally bankrupt.”

There is a reflexive desire to dig in heels and reject such absolutism, but my rejection goes beyond mere reflexivity.

The film is sweet, and in no way could be honestly derided as promoting predatory behavior. Alana is the object of affection; Gary, the younger of the two, is the pursuer. Yet for all his pursuing and for all the charismatic charm oozing from him that should make his the central story, it’s not; it’s her story. Alana is the one processing the world, trying to find a fit with more age-appropriate boys, much older men, and devastatingly unavailable men. She is on a journey of self-discovery, whereas Gary is, even at his young age, relatively fully formed. On their first date, he asks her what her plans are; she responds with nothing. She tells him he’ll be rich and famous by the time he’s 17, and she says that she’ll still be helping school photographers when she’s 35.

The beauty in the film comes from two people of two completely different worldviews and personalities meetings each other as they’re traveling different directions from each other. Gary is perpetually in pursuit of adulthood. Alana is in limbo and doesn’t seem to know much of anything about where her life is headed, but it seems clear that adulthood is not what she expected it would be. Gary sees this older woman, who’s a bit immature, as on his level yet also a signifier of adulthood. Alana sees this younger man, who’s mature beyond his years, as a bridge back to her youth while not infantilizing herself. They both see each other through some tumultuous times in their lives and the human experience more generally. They each make the other’s life better, and they love each other for that.

It’s hard not root for that and them.