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Gender + Sexuality

This Year’s Film to Fight Over: ‘Licorice Pizza’

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest has an age gap that has brought boycott calls. I say: see the movie.

Dorothy Woodend 22 Dec

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

It wouldn’t be the holiday season without a film to fight over. In previous years, Martin Scorsese has kindly obliged by making epic odes to violent men, and people lined up on either side of the debate to hurl invective or superlatives at the indifferent sky.

This year, the movie that everyone seems to diverge on is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. No worries if you haven’t seen the film yet, which opens in Canada on Saturday. I’ll bring you up to speed.

In its first moments, we meet the two central characters, separated by 10 years in age. Alana Kane (Alana Haim) is 25, and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is 15, though they seem to be equally immature. When the pair first connect, Kane is working as a photographer’s assistant and Valentine is a high school student, part-time actor and full-time hustler. She lends him a comb, and he hits on her with lusty brio of a much older dude.

The year is 1973, the place is the San Fernando Valley. From this meet-cute opening, the narrative meanders in shaggy dog fashion from a theatre production in New York back to California, where the two decide to go into business together selling waterbeds.

There are various odd interludes and cul-de-sacs in the story. Valentine is arrested on suspicion of murder. Kane auditions for a film and lies her face off about her various skills, like the ability to ride a horse and speak Portuguese. Kane’s disastrous date with an aging movie star played by Sean Penn provides an opportunity for Valentine to prove his devotion to his lady love.

Amongst this perambulatory stuff, the cameos come thick and fast. In addition to Penn’s star turn, there’s Maya Rudolph, Tom Waits, John C. Reilly, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s dad, George. The most rock-em-sock-em moment, however, goes to Bradley Cooper channelling the lunacy of Jon Peters, film producer, hairstylist and one-time boyfriend of Barbra Streisand.

When Kane and Valentine deliver a waterbed to Peters’ palatial digs, he threatens to kill them and their families if they “fuck up his house.” Naturally, they decide to fuck up his house. Their getaway doesn’t quite go as planned, leading to perhaps the film’s best scene, as Kane navigates a huge delivery van, in reverse, without brakes down a series of hairpin curves.

But the actual events in the story aren’t all that critical. What does matter is the nature of the relationship between these two lost souls, lurching back and forth from friends to business partners to enemies and then back to something less easily defined. The pattern is when he wants her, she doesn’t want him, and when she changes her mind, he’s not into it. Once established, this dance of attraction and rejection repeats over and over again.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s work (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love), while impressive in its scope and ambition, is not always easy to like. Although Licorice Pizza tackles the director’s usual territory of complex relationships, disillusionment and general human weirdness, there is silliness and warmth in the film that is as easy to fall into as a patch of summer sunlight.

The film is much gentler than the director’s earlier offerings like Magnolia or Phantom Thread, which I never really understood the fuss about. It reminded me most of Boogie Nights, another of his films set in the San Fernando Valley, where the heat and funk of the time and place generate a dark energy all their own.

But back to the controversy for a moment.

The basic gist of it, from the anti-Licorice Pizza side, is that the film uncritically presents pedophilia because of the age difference between the two central characters. There is also a poorly conceived bit of casual racism in the form of an owner of a local Japanese restaurant. (The director has responded to both criticisms.)

Is it enough to declare that everyone should avoid the movie, as some commentators have suggested?

This seems to be the crux of the cancelling age: if I don’t like this movie, book, piece of music, then no one else should be allowed to see, read or hear it either. The trend has taken on serious proportions, particularly in the U.S. where the debate over what books are allowed in public school has been extended to public libraries.

The list of books under threat in recent years has been startling, everything from Toni Morrison to Dr. Seuss.

In some cases, the content under threat of being banned needs more attention, not less.

Removing a book or a film so that people don’t even have access to it seems the absolute wrong way to go about it, unless it’s hate speech or violent pornography. But Licorice is none of these; rather, it’s a pretty benign story about two odd people who find each other.

There have certainly been films about inappropriate relationships before. Licorice carries echoes of earlier works like The Graduate, or some of Robert Altman’s sprawling sagas. But the film that Licorice most reminded me of was director Hal Ashby’s masterpiece Harold and Maude.

When it first debuted Harold and Maude was widely pilloried because of the relationship at its core. In the film, Harold (Bud Cort) is a sad sack of a young man given to staging elaborate suicide attempts in order to piss off his mother. Maude (Ruth Gordon), pushing 80, is the polar opposite, in love with life and its vicissitudes and as sunny as a daisy, in spite of surviving one of the worst moments in human history, as a tattooed number on her arm attests.

Although both Harold and Maude are legally adults when they take up together, the outrage that greeted their coupling was considerable. In contrast, both characters in Licorice Pizza aren’t all that far apart in age or mentality. But the furor, like many of the recent cancel culture tizzies, has less to do with the actual film and more to do with the fact that people will fight about anything.

Though the calls to boycott the movie aren’t all that widespread, they are telling and speak to the moment of divisiveness in which we find ourselves.

Even if something is problematic, I still want the right to watch, read and think about it. That extends to everything from the most anodyne to the most horrendous, from the Marquis de Sade to Pasolini’s Salò... to yes, little old Licorice Pizza.  [Tyee]

Read more: Gender + Sexuality, Film

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