Licorice Pizza: Why Paul Thomas Anderson’s New Movie Is An Anti-Love Story


Licorice Pizza is many things: a sunny anthem to 1970s Los Angeles; a serious exploration of first love; a cheerfully youthful homage to goofy cinema; a silly, voyeuristic behind-the-scenes slice of Tinseltown. But above all, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film is a journey of the self, disguised as a coming-of-age romance.

We open with a most unlikely cute encounter: she is the photographer’s assistant during her high school photo day. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a precocious 15-year-old former child actor under the influence of Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the band Haim), a Barbara Stanwyck-esque firecracker. Alana brims with the blistering resilience of a 25-year-old who has become the object of adolescent male lust, but she never becomes a one-note fantasy. His gaze is central.

Despite the age difference, the swirling chemistry between them is evident. With Gary, Alana is luminous, putting him and his child-actor charm in their place with a self-control that isn’t visible when surrounded by powerful, older men. They bounce off each other like pinball machines in a machine.

With Alana, Gary is endearingly confident, bringing her into his worlds, whether it’s Hollywood business as a chaperone, selling waterbeds at his store, or helping her achieve his dream of becoming an actor. They are both at odds with themselves; he’s a case of arrested development, he talks like he’s Frank Sinatra but can’t show anything louder than an order for two cokes at the bar.

Many viewers on social media platforms recently called the film’s age difference (Gary is underage) ‘problematic’, with some even going so far as to call it ‘predatory’ and in danger of ‘glamorising paedophilia’ . But the will-they-won’t-they dynamic doesn’t weigh on the film, and that’s not even the point. Instead, the film uses an offbeat relationship as a way to explore what Anderson describes as the “sticky stuff” of growing up – the parts of us that we shed as we age, like youthful optimism or the terrible pleasure of a crush. In this setting, Anderson slyly uses Alana’s reluctance to grow up to interrogate the pressures that women in American society faced in the 1970s.

In 1973, the sexual revolution and the women’s liberation movement were already in full swing. Roe vs WadWe recently legalized abortion, advancing women’s bodily autonomy. But outside the arena of domestic life, the future of women in the workplace remained a looming question mark. More women had a college education than at any other time in the United States, but only 13.3% of those with a bachelor’s degree entered the workforce. The Marriage Bar, which prohibited married women from working, was still in place until 1973. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which ultimately prevented women from being unfairly dismissed for becoming pregnant, did not came into effect only in 1978. This is the environment in which Alana would have been raised.

She is not unaware of the odds hanging over her: “He’s rich and famous and he was going to get me out of here!” she laments her father after a Shabbat date with Gary’s co-star Lance (Skyler Gisondo) goes awry. Opposed to Gary is the grown man’s world, characterized by sleaze and ego massage, whether it’s Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and his slimy comedies or William Holden (Sean Penn) and his obsession with relive past glories. Even mayoral candidate Joel Wachs’ (Benny Safdie) encouragement ends in disappointment, when it turns out he’s been using Alana as a cover-up to camouflage his true relationship.

Bradley Cooper, Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in “Licorice Pizza”

(Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Photos)

Added to Alana’s desire to remain free, suspended in time with “Gary and his 15-year-old friends,” is the muted angst that permeates the film’s period setting. The hippie era of Free Love was a fire that had long since died out, giving way to the era of Nixon’s cynicism; Gary’s corny waving of a “peace and love, baby” V sign is met with a severely rude reprimand. And then there’s the unease around the oil crisis, something that affects even the untouchables, the Hollywood elite. It’s no wonder Alana is uncomfortable with an already unstable future. At least Gary offers optimism and a place of safety.

Take a closer look and Licorice Pizza is not at all a salacious story about an unbalanced power relationship, or even a romantic love. It’s the intoxication of getting lost and then finding yourself again, the story of a woman-girl who reclaims herself during a period that did not allow women to put themselves forward. As Alana tells Gary earlier in the film, “you’re not my director”; this story belongs to him.

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