“Problematic” is not a word I throw around lightly, because when I throw it around, I throw it around hard.
Paul Thomas Anderson is so good at movies, he’s the second thing I think of when someone says “PTA.” There Will Be Blood is my favorite film of that decade (the 1890s). The Master is the Boogie Nights of Scientology, and Boogie Nights is The Master of porn. He inspired Fiona Apple to make some phenomenal music, presumably by being a nice and supportive boyfriend. Which is why I was shocked, nay, stunned, by this newest release.
Licorice Pizza tells the story of Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old child actor whose inexorable pursuit of business ventures leads him to amass a great fortune, primarily on the back of child labor. Now while I am whole-heartedly in favor of business, I cannot say I’m too keen on child labor, particularly male child labor.1 The depiction of this cruelty is bad enough, but Paul takes it one step further, actually utilizing child labor in the production of the film (the “metanarrative,” as my dear friend Lyotard would say).2 Let me write that again, for emphasis: Paul Thomas Anderson rounded up a bunch of children, definitionally without their consent, and shot them. On film. And in real life. Paul Thomas Anderson brought these kids to a set—kids to a set on which, no less, there was a big fire Sean Penn rode a motorcycle over. Read that again, closer:
Paul Thomas Anderson brought these kids to a set—kids to a set on which, no less, there was a big fire Sean Penn rode a motorcycle over.
Paul Thomas Anderson endangered these kids. He hunted them, sedulously, to the point where they are at risk of extinction. Why did he do that? I’ll tell you why. He (and by extension, this film) is/are problematic. But you aren’t ready for that conversation.
The film also tells the story of Alana Kane, played by Alana Haim, of the band Haim. If you don’t know Haim, they’re an indie rock band comprising sisters Este, Danielle, and Alana, all (at least 2) Jewish, which I, being at least 2 Jewish musician comprising 3 siblings, can relate to. But what I cannot relate to is being a 25-year-old woman in 1970’s Los Angeles, which is the character that Alana Haim plays in this film. This is not problematic, but it is a plot hole.
Gary meets Alana on picture day at his high school, where she’s working. He hits on her for three minutes of tracking shot, and she acquiesces to meeting him at the “tail of the cock restaurant” that evening. If the unabashed use of “restaurant” as an innuendo wasn’t sickening enough, recall that she is 25, while he is 15. Now I know some of you sickos out there are going “sicko mode,” thinking sicko thoughts like “age is just a number.” Let me tell you something, sicko. Age is not “just a number.” Age is a word.
The answer to “when is the age gap sussy” is a question that’s plagued philosophers for millenia, with a particular revival in interest among scholars of the Continental tradition in the late 20th century. Personally, I don’t think people are reliable arbiters in resolving such quandaries, as they’re subject to the caprices of nuance, sophistry, and confusing sentence structure. Luckily, an impartial judge exists in the form of a mathematical operation, the trusty “half your age plus seven” algorithm. The accompanying theorem states that two individuals with ages x and y are age-appropriate for each other if and only if the following inequalities hold: y/2 + 7 < x, x/2 + 7 < y, or in simple language, that for each person, half their age plus 7 is less than the other person’s age. Applying here, we find that 15/2 + 7 = 29/2 < 25, which is fine, but that 25/2 + 7 = 39/2 > 15, which is not fine. This proves, constructively, (or contrapositively, the other way), that this age gap is, in fact, sussy. So, you know, think on that.
Gary’s mom is unable to accompany him on an acting tour to New York, so Alana goes in her stead. On the flight the two wear stethoscopes, stealing valor from medical professionals. They use their bogus credentials to chat up others on the plane—Gary, a flight attendant, and Alana, a different underaged guy. Their deception is revealed when both targets begin suffering severe medical afflictions, someone yells “is anybody a doctor!?” and neither one stands up. Classic bystander effect.
Back in LA, Alana begins dating Gary’s Jewish co-star, Lance. She brings him home for Shabbat dinner, where, to the chagrin of the Kane family, he brashly declares he’s an atheist, saying: “I’ve met God, God is a woman, and I hate women.” Alana, distraught at Lance’s renouncement, asks if his penis is circumcised. Lance urbanely retorts that he “doesn’t know how big a circum is,” and rides off into the distance.
Gary and Alana go into the waterbed business. They experience a good amount of success, but Alana becomes upset when Gary leverages his prodigious size as “king waterbed” to attract other women. Alana tries her hand at acting, and lands a role accompanying Sean Penn to a bar. She gets blacklisted in the entertainment industry when someone says, “oh wow is that Tom Waits?” (it is), and she asks, “Tom Waits for what?” Gary comes to her rescue, and the two sleep together on a waterbed (they do not have sex, with each other or the waterbed).
Richard Nixon, indelicately trying to distance himself from anything involving the word “water,” announces that waterbeds are banned. Alana joins the campaign of mayoral candidate Joel Wachs, but leaves after discovering he’s gay. Gary uses insider information to invest in pinball machine stock, netting him a considerable wealth (of pinball machines). Alana and Gary reunite, and kiss passionately. The end.
This film is not just problematic for aforementioned reasons, but for heretofore unmentioned ones as well. For instance, take the lack of representation. While the film does have gay characters, the two engage in a furtive relationship, with the implicit message (the “metaphor”) being that gayness is bad and should be repressed.
The film has no black or latine characters. Now you might be thinking “well yeah Bod given historical segregatory practices and other forms of institutional discrimintation, it would make sense that a wealthy area of Los Angeles in the 1970’s would be predominantly white.” Well I don’t know buddy, that sounds pretty gosh darn racist to me.
The film has some ok content, but isn’t content letting the audience enjoy it. For instance, take the scene where the guy does a caricatured japanese accent to his wife. I laughed very hard during this scene, as the joke was funny. But the film squanders any resultant good will with a later callback, where it’s revealed the man in question has divorced his wife and remarried. Really, Paul? Divorce? Find God.
So now we return to our original question: is Licorice Pizza problematic? Yeah. Is it a crime to enjoy this movie? It should be. What the hell is licorice pizza?
If Paul Thomas Anderson is reading this, know that you made an enemy of me the moment you stopped heart reacting to the funny animal pictures I sent you. If anyone in the Haim family is reading this, know that my DMs are very open. If Cooper Hoffman is reading this, know that I’m truly sorry for your loss—your father was an incredible actor and seeing you carry on his legacy is genuinely inspiring. If any of the teachers who called me illiterate are reading this, know that I can still learn to read, but you can’t ever learn to have swag. Stay hating.
1 They probably shouldn’t be giving birth at any age.
2 Lyotard is a French guy, not an insult.