Marlow: Now that we’ve broken down Adam McKay’s star-studded Netflix satire Don’t Look Up (alternate title: America Is Royally F*cked), we can move on to a “controversy” that’s somehow captured the imagination of liberal TikTok/Twitter: Licorice Pizza. The latest from filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, of There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights fame, is a coming-of-age story set in ’70s Los Angeles—The Valley, to be precise.
Kevin: It’s neither here nor there, but honestly this is the best movie title of our time.
Marlow: Named after a real-life chain of record store shops in Southern California. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a regular PTA collaborator) is a 15-year-old child actor who’s been hit hard by puberty, judging by his acne clusters, towering height and paunch, but it hasn’t dimmed his confidence.
Kevin: I’m not kidding when I say that, after the credits rolled, I turned to my friend and said, “Acne representation.” What a treat to see normal/bad skin on screen!
Marlow: Especially in the Maskne Era. One day, he happens upon Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the band Haim, in a revelatory debut), who is a photographer’s assistant and ten years his senior. It marks the start of a beautiful and thrilling friendship as they navigate a bizarre cast of Hollywood characters, including producer/Barbara Streisand-lover Jon Peters (a hilariously manic Bradley Cooper), action hero Jack Holden (Sean Penn, playing a character based on William Holden), and more. It was named Best Film by the National Board of Review and has received near-universal critical acclaim. In recent days, however, pearl-clutching lefties on TikTok and Twitter have come after the film, with some even going as far as accusing it of “pedophilia.” Make it all make sense, Kfal!
Kevin: Make sense of a TikTok controversy? You’ve come to the exact wrong place.
Marlow: Listen, I don’t blame you. I wish I wasn’t aware of this!
Kevin: The context here is, as you mentioned, that this is both a coming-of-age story and a romcom. Alana is 25. Gary is 15. People are viewing that relationship dynamic as predatory and abusive, especially given that we’re made as viewers to root for them and applaud their connection. There are a whole host of criticisms being lobbed at the film: that the trailers and marketing purposefully obscure the age difference, that it is pedophilia played for laughs, if the genders were reversed we’d be flagging the movie as problematic, or that the grooming is excused as forgivable because it’s a celebrated film auteur (Anderson) at the helm, hence making it cool. So now we’re in the situation where there’s a decision to be made over whether those criticisms are valid and the movie should be called out, or if this is just another case of hyperbolic, reactionary social media seizing a news cycle.
Marlow: And it’s definitely the latter, in my opinion. Audiences these days often make the mistake of allowing their personal politics to color their feelings toward a film or TV show—to the point where if a given film or series doesn’t directly align with their current views, they deem it a moral failure of some kind. But movies hold a mirror to society and should thus be afforded the opportunity to be messy, as life itself is very messy, assuming the picture doesn’t veer into exploitation territory, which Licorice Pizza most certainly does not.
Kevin: The only thing it exploits is my crush on Bradley Cooper, who looks like an absolute snack in his hippie outfit in this movie.
Marlow: He is *so good* at playing coked-up maniacs. Sign me up for a Jon Peters spin-off. As you watch Licorice Pizza, you root for Gary and Alana to succeed at their various entrepreneurial endeavors, be it the waterbed venture or a pinball arcade, and want them to remain friends, but you never view it as a sexual, grooming, or predatory relationship. Gary surely has a bit of a crush, but teen boys crush on any attractive woman in their orbit who gives them the time of day; Alana, meanwhile, never views Gary as a sexual object. It’s all about friendship. I’m genuinely curious if some of these folks are just kooky conspiracists on some “Pizzagate” bullshit and coming for the film because they read the synopsis and it’s got “pizza” in the title (“Pizzagate” is wildly popular on TikTok and these are deeply stupid times, after all).
Kevin: If only it were as easy as writing the whole thing off as Pizzagate-conspiracy nonsense. The people who are criticizing the film do seem to be in their right minds, and their arguments are, as bullet points, convincing. If you watch the movie with the mindset and understanding that this age difference is gross and abusive, it is alarming and concerning. You’re left wondering what the intentions are. Is it glamorizing such a relationship? Is it normalizing it? But when you do that, you’re reducing the film to just one thing, and it’s the thing that I don’t think it’s actually about.
Marlow: I couldn’t agree more.
Kevin: I didn’t feel like the movie was about the relationship between Alana and Gary as much as it was about how each other’s presence in their respective lives helped them to understand who they are in the moment, and then grow in the future. I think that’s why all these criticisms are confusing to me, because they make the assumption that Alana is preying on Gary and that love or sex is the end-all goal of their narrative arcs. I never felt that, but if you watch it through the prism of this backlash, it can be difficult to focus on anything else.
Marlow: Yes, it’s about how they’ve helped each other grow as people, which is the polar opposite of what an exploitative relationship does. It’s worth noting that the two do share a brief kiss toward the latter part of the film, but by that point Gary is not only around 17 years old, as the film takes place over the course of years, but it’s not sexually charged at all.
Kevin: “Not sexually charged at all” is also how I would describe my last few dates.
Marlow: Ha! As Paul Thomas Anderson himself told The New York Times of the age gap, “There’s no line that’s crossed, and there’s nothing but the right intentions. It would surprise me if there was some kind of kerfuffle about it, because there’s not that much there. That’s not the story that we made, in any kind of way. There isn’t a provocative bone in this film’s body.” PTA sadly forgot that it’s 2021, and certain corners of the internet tend to lose their marbles about anything and everything that could potentially disagree with them. As you said, intent is important here, and at no point do you feel like Gary and Alana’s relationship is building toward a romance of any kind; on the contrary, the film implies that these two perpetually-in-motion dreamers will soon grow apart.
Kevin: I guess I’m just glad that, even while very self-aware that we now have a piece with two bylines about it on this website, the movie seems to have skirted this outrage. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year. Watching it in a crowded theater where everyone was giggling and applauding at every joke and set piece (the truck sequence!) was rejuvenating for me as a movie lover. Alana Haim is so damn good, making the fact that this is her first leading role all the wilder. So much of film reaction these days seems to live in bad-faith controversy, exploding the smallest critiques into potentially ruinous backlash. It’s exhausting. Sometimes I just wish we could let good movies just be good.