Licorice Pizza might be the best bad movie ever made. The events in the film are held together by a love story, but they are all so disjointed and sporadic that it would be generous call it a plot. However, it’s also written and directed by one of the great filmmakers of our time, so the strong acting, cinematography, and dialogue often distract from the deficient story. Zoomed out enough, it’s the exact same synopsis as Wes Anderson’s Rushmore: “A quirky teen with proclivities beyond his years falls in love with and pursues a woman who’s too old for him.”
The film gives off the feeling of an inside joke. It only took a brief amount of research to confirm this is true on two different levels. First, the exploits of main character Gary (Cooper Hoffman) are inspired by various anecdotes Gary Goetzman told writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson’s desire to follow Gary’s rise from childhood actor to waterbed salesman to arcade owner apparently took priority over a coherent plot. A love story attempts to glue these discombobulated story elements together but it doesn’t quite work.
1970s Los Angeles functions as the other inside joke. Honestly, I didn’t know who Joel Wachs or Jon Peters were and I’m sure for those who did their scenes were much funnier. Of course, it’s more than that. Directors from L.A. who make L.A. period pieces are always too close to the city and make films so laden with Easter eggs and homages that they fly over the heads of anyone outside Southern California. I got this impression watching Licorice Pizza, but I stopped trying to decode them. When I have occasion to watch such a film with my wife, a City of Angels native, she explains things. Rarely does the authenticity of L.A. contribute to a film’s plot or themes.
Licorice Pizza provides a fully realized world, well thought out characters, but doesn’t give them much to do. At one point the group flees from a crime in an out-of-gas box truck with only elevation on their side. It was the highlight of the movie. But more often than not, the situations feel like they have no stakes. At one point Gary is arrested for murder in a case of mistaken identity. The entire scene is inconsequential to the plot and it never feels like Gary’s in any danger. We are equally unconcerned when Gary’s businesses fail because 1) he’s fifteen and 2) he’s the type of determined schemer who will be a success no matter what.
Anderson attempts to create tension with an age gap—Gary is fifteen and his love interest, Alana (Alana Haim), is twenty-five (or maybe twenty-eight)—but the tension just isn’t there. It just feels like something is missing. Unlike Rushmore, where the infatuation drives the plot, here the events just seem to happen alongside the infatuation. Gary rarely allows his crush for Alana to distract from his business dealings. Since their relationship works best when they function as business partners rather than romantic interests, the “will they/won’t they” Anderson attempts to manufacture never feels particularly pressing. If the characters were able to move beyond the romance and discover fulfillment in a platonic relationship, the story could have worked. The business relationship would make sense in the context of how their personal relationship evolves. Instead, they both take turns finding romantic partners leading to jealousy.
Now for the elephant in the room. In today’s society we most often become aware of such a relationship when it’s between a teacher and student. As a classic episode of South Park points out, when this is between a man and a girl society is rightly horrified. When it’s between a woman and a boy we congratulate the boy. Either way, the adult in the relationship faces legal consequences. Honestly, I tend to agree with the South Park assessment even if it appears to be a double standard or crass. As a former fifteen year old boy, I feel confident in asserting that as long as the boy is a willing participant, he will suffer no psychological harm from being with an older woman.
In Rushmore, the teacher steadfastly refuses the student’s advances. Here, things are more complicated. Alana is not Gary’s teacher. In fact, throughout most of the film, he employs her. Given her desperation to find the type of financial success that would allow her to move out of her parents’ house, Gary’s constant pressure for intimacy doesn’t have the innocence that typically defines these stories. Gary has leverage over Alana. She’s convinced (rightly so) that he’s soon to be a millionaire and, given the other men she throws herself at throughout the film, it’s clear that she would do the same with Gary if not for his age. The two have a shared immaturity but that’s only because Gary is mature for his age while Alana is immature for hers.
I cannot criticize the film for utilizing a romance between a teenage boy and a woman, but I will criticize it for the execution. Their romance never transcend the age gap. Not once in the film did I think, “they should just go for it.” We never lose sight of the fact that he’s a teenager with an infatuation and she’s an adult who depends on the success of a teenager. So you’re left thinking, “what’s the point?”
Throughout the film, I eagerly anticipated learning why it was called Licorice Pizza. It’s such a bizarre name and I thought there had to be something interesting behind it. But the name was never explained. I had to look it up afterward—it was the name of a record shop and Paul Thomas Anderson thought the name encompassed the mood of the film. Once again, we’re provided an inside joke that the audience isn’t privy to.