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Paul Thomas Anderson's comedy about growing up misses the mark with a controversial gag but shows maturity and mastery everywhere else
Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson). 133 minutes. Exclusive 70MM presentation opens Friday, December 24 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Rating: NNNNN
Maybe it’s ill-advised to admit this, but I didn’t have issues with the Asian joke in Licorice Pizza the first time I saw it. I thought the controversial bit where a white actor puts on a thick and exaggerated accent worked. But then I saw the movie again in a packed theatre full of white people.
Before we tread too deeply into this business, let me just say, I love Licorice Pizza. I’ll explain why further down, but for now let’s just sum things up like so: it could be my favourite movie of the year, which is not surprising as my affection for almost all things Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) has been poured into these pages plenty. His latest is a hilarious and moving comedy about young love and growing up, starring Cooper Hoffman as an enterprising 15-year-old and Alana Haim as the decade-older woman who becomes his deeply-conflicted muse and mother hen. Swoon!
The film worked its magic on me, so much so that I went back to watch it again, but this time at the Westwood Village Theatre, which is just a dozen miles from its San Fernando Valley setting. The small group I attended the movie with were among a handful of the POCs in the packed 1300+ capacity venue. The pretty much all-white audience surrounding us laughed thunderously throughout, and rightly so. But there was something deeply cringe about how loudly that audience guffawed during that joke. There’s something funny about that scene to be sure. But I suspect when white people laugh like that, it’s also missing the mark. And there’s also something off-putting about the online discourse over that scene, where PTA defenders are quick to dismiss those who were made uncomfortable by it.
Great filmmakers can be caught slipping just as much as Licorice Pizza can be both a beautiful work of art and troubling. Those scenes (there’s not just one) can offend, even if they make sense for the early 1970s LA milieu that Anderson lovingly but also critically plunders while working double duty to say something about the racial politics at the movies today.
The offending gag involves Jerry Frick (as played by John Michael Higgins), one of the movie’s rogues gallery of real-life LA personalities recreated through antic performances – see also Bradley Cooper as producer Jon Peters and Christine Ebersole as Lucille Ball placeholder Lucy Doolittle. Frick was the real-life owner of The Mikado, the first Japanese restaurant in the valley, which he ran alongside Japanese wife Yoko.
In Licorice Pizza, we first meet Higgins’s Frick and his wife Mioko (Yumi Mizui) as they meet with a publicist to devise the PR strategy for their “authentic” Japanese restaurant. The publicist emphasizes the orientalism of female servers dressed like geishas while assuring patrons that they can rely on good old American food and beer, just in case Japanese cuisine is too out there for LA residents. Fielding his wife’s opinion, Frick puts on that cartoonishly thick accent. She responds crossly in Japanese, expressing her disdain for a press release that objectifies servers instead of celebrating Japanese food.
In a latter scene, Mioko is replaced by a new wife, Kimiko (Megumi Anjo), as if Frick needed a less vocal token Japanese wife to validate his place in the superficially authentic Japanese cuisine business. We find out later how deep Frick’s performative authenticity goes.
Frick is the punchline in a joke that falls in line with so much of Anderson’s critique of whiteness. But it’s easy to understand why people especially of Asian descent will be offended by a scene that can lift right out in a film that centres white perspectives.
That scene also says so much about Anderson’s perspective. He’s the great white filmmaker beloved by so much of “Film Twitter,” which is a very white entity. The fact that the demographic in his movies looks a lot like the demographic at the Westwood Village theatre that night is occasionally called out by those pushing for more diversity in film. But I don’t actually agree with all those takes.
Anderson makes great movies in the spaces he knows, like the San Fernando Valley where he grew up. The alternative to Anderson’s focus on whiteness gets you the Jerry Fricks of Hollywood: white producers or directors, tapping diverse talent in token ways so they can profit off their cultures, making performative claims to allyship and authenticity, and tempering the movie’s tempura to be suitable for white tastes. That parallel is why that moment worked for me.
I suspect the comparison between entrepreneurs like Frick and filmmakers is intentional for Anderson. I also suspect he sees many characters in his films as people who harbour the same spirit as filmmakers. Daniel Day-Lewis’s dressmaker in Phantom Thread is essentially the heralded white male auteur. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader in The Master was a pompous myth maker. Even the young Gary Valentine in Licorice Pizza, played by the late Hoffman’s son Cooper, seems to have the over-eager energy of a young would-be filmmaker.
Anderson admitted in an interview that Gary Valentine’s antics are largely inspired by movie producer Gary Goetzman. The latter, like the film’s character, was a child actor who ran a waterbed business. But I suspect Anderson also sees Gary Valentine as a stand-in for himself. Licorice Pizza just feels so affectionately personal, like a memory piece. And there’s something about this young, confident and talented kid who is living in the shadow of Hollywood and is eager to grow up fast and show the world what he is made of that feels very Anderson-y.
Remember that he was a great white hype in his 20s. His early movies like Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia show off cocksure style that mimicked Scorsese and Altman. But for all the skill and passion in his early work, those films lack the control and maturity Anderson brought to monumental films like The Master, Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread.
In Licorice Pizza, Anderson isn’t just returning to the San Fernando Valley that he grew up in. He’s going backwards to the terrain of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, but now with the maturity we see in his recent work. There’s a heavy serving of self-awareness in this return, as if Anderson is hanging his own growth as a filmmaker onto this story. Dare I say, Licorice Pizza is PTA fan service with callback after callback to his previous films.
Familiar faces from the PTA extended universe return; one in particularly makes a hilarious Hitchcock-like cameo. A thrilling sequence involving a red sports car that runs out of gas feels like a nod to the climax in Boogie Nights. The now-shuttered Billingsley’s steak house that characters played by John C. Reilly and Melora Walters dined at in Magnolia plays classic Valley haunt Tail O’ The Cock in Licorice Pizza. The romantic and entrepreneurial aspirations of Adam Sandler’s character in Punch-Drunk Love is echoed in Gary Valentine’s pursuit of success and Alana. And then there’s the actor playing Valentine, the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a close friend and regular collaborator of Anderson. Is it a wink that the late Hoffman played the Mattress Man in Punch-Drunk Love and now his son is playing a kid who sells waterbeds?
The waterbed business in Licorice Pizza is initially called Soggy Bottom, which was actually the film’s working title. It’s meant to be a dirty joke, though it also nods to the childishness Gary thinks he’s above. Soggy Bottom sounds like someone soiled their diaper, says 20-something Alana in one of many moments that infantilize Gary. In earlier scenes, we see him performing among children in pajamas and auditioning for a zit cream commercial. In the film’s opening shot, Gary is carefully fixing his hair in the mirror for picture day, trying to look as profesh as possible, while his immature schoolmates induce a toilet explosion with a cherry bomb (that would make for a soggy bottom too, right?).
While Gary is eager to grow up fast, Alana is stalled. She says she’s 25. She could be 28. She’s working a dead-end job as a handsy photographer’s assistant, until she meets Gary on that picture day.
In his review for The Ringer, Adam Nayman – the guy who literally wrote the book on Paul Thomas Anderson – describes how the filmmaker uses movement as an organizing principle in Licorice Pizza. In the film’s early scenes, we see Alana walking towards the back of a line-up on picture day until she crosses paths with Gary, and then instantly things turn around. She walks alongside him, as if his drive forward gives her the momentum to progress.
Throughout the movie we see Alana looking for ways to get ahead, often hitching a ride with guys who can command more opportunity than she can. She rides a plane with Gary as his chaperone or is often at the driver’s seat of the vehicles that he procures. At one point, she falls off the back of a motorcycle, suggesting that the person she was saddling up with is far too fast and dangerous for her.
The biggest feels rush over us when Gary and Alana are running alongside, or towards each other in moments when their lives are headed in opposite directions. There’s so much warm comfort when they meet in the middle.
Hoffman and Haim, in their first outings as actors, are both wonderful as Gary and Alana. Haim especially, a member of sibling rock band HAIM, is having a real star is born moment, giving the best performance by a musician this year (move over, Gaga!). Her finest moments are often silent, involving intense focus. In the film’s most thrilling sequence, she stares into a rear-view mirror, giving magnetic and self-reflective energy as her character pilots a U-Haul truck in reverse at high speeds down the Hollywood Hills. It’s yet another incredible set piece highlighting movement.
And it could also work as a metaphor for what PTA’s doing with Licorice Pizza. Like Alana he’s moving backwards, returning to his old haunts. But this time he’s steering with a mastery over the wheel we simply didn’t see the first time around.