“Licorice Pizza” review
My Letterboxd review of the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Licorice Pizza
There is a lot I love about this movie, but it is definitely my least favorite PTA film.
The movie shines when it’s not focusing on the love story, but rather, their two individual coming-of-age stories. Gary is a kid trying to grow up too fast, and Alana is a young adult stuck in her adolescence no matter how hard she tries. They’re perfectly imperfect for each other, both helping each other grow and holding each other back. He helps her find actual purpose and drive in her life, but his own immaturity enables hers. She helps give him the confidence to start his own businesses, but her relationships with other men make him puff his chest and try to be more of a “man” when all he really wants is to be a kid. But both characters are given such great moments, you can’t help but fall in love with both of them — even though you’re not so sure they should be falling in love with each other.
But the dynamic is mainly a backdrop to the best sequences of the movie, which revolve around the oil embargo of 1973 (and a very angry/horny Bradley Cooper), a blossoming water bed business, and the secret life of a politician endearingly played by Benny Safdie. The most absurd moments are the most delightful, and some parts of the movie feel like their own short film, isolated from the rest of the plot and not really having any bearing on the overall story, besides strengthening the relationship between Gary and Alana. Bringing in big name actors like Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper for these scenes didn’t feel like a distraction — they add a lot of flair and goofiness to the movie, and I thought it was a strong choice.
Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim are phenomenal. Cooper looks just like Philip Seymour-Hoffman, and brought his energy to the screen in a way that really made me miss him. I think both of these leads are going to do big things after this. Alana (the character) might be one of my favorite PTA characters ever. I loved her spirit, boldness, and wit, even when it’s clear she is unsure of herself. I would watch a standalone movie about her, but she plays off of Cooper beautifully and their parallel stories are a delight to watch.
I can’t review this movie without addressing the weird and unnecessary elephant in the room. There is a very uncomfortable scene early on in the movie that depicts a white owner of a restaurant speaking to his Japanese wife in a cartoonish and offensive Japanese accent. I just simply don’t understand the purpose it served, and it kind of put a damper on the whole first half of the movie. PTA has commented on it saying it was emblematic of the time period and we “can’t watch the film through a 2021 lens.” But like… it is 2021, though. And it is just really awkward, and it does not fit the tone of the rest of the movie at all. They even reprise the joke later in the movie, and I just sat there blank-faced. I don’t think it was intentionally racist, but it certainly isn’t serving a purpose to the narrative, and I hope they just cut it from later releases of the movie. It just felt like a distraction.
Another thing I wonder about the movie — how necessary was the age gap? Wouldn’t their respective stories still be effective if, for example, he was 17? The movie certainly tows the line of what it “endorses” versus what it is simply observing with a critical lens. I guess we are really supposed to believe they can’t be together — him being 15, her being 25 — but is that reality supposed to upset us? Are we rooting for them to break the rules, even though we know it’s toxic? (These are genuine questions. I don’t have the answers, but I wish I could sit down with Paul Thomas Anderson and pick his brain…)
I think it’s worth seeing, especially for the near-perfect sections where it fully embraces absurdity and nostalgia. The soundtrack is amazing, it’s shot beautifully, and Johnny Greenwood knocks it out of the park with the score, as he always does. But I definitely feel conflicted, and I’ll be giving this one a rewatch or two before I’m really settled on a rating. But this will do for now!