Licorice Pizza:
bitter or sweet?

Spoilers ahead for Licorice Pizza and Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood!

Universal Pictures
Ivan Humphrey

Do you remember when Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood landed in the cinemas back in 2019? The reception of Quentin Tarantino’s 9th movie was divided. The directorial choice of using the real events of the Tate murders as a background story set off many viewers. Without the growing suspense sitting in the auditorium provides if one is familiar with the background events, the movie could seem like just another boring depiction of the 60s-70s’ Hollywood. Although I was warned beforehand and I am happy with my viewing experience, I can imagine that without the historically specific piece of information, the movie feels like it’s lacking something. You can’t quite wrap your head around what is missing, you just know that something is not there. At least for you.

This is the exact incompleteness I got when the lights turned on at 23:24 after watching Licorice Pizza at the cinema. Even though director Paul Thomas Anderson (aka PTA) did not include a horrific incident like the Tate murders in the diegesis, the story and character play in Licorice Pizza constantly suggested that I was missing an element for having limitless entertainment. On the other hand, the visuals and light humour of the film were so captivating that for the most part it balanced out the uncertainty throughout the viewing experience.

Just to be clear, I do not intend to start a debate about the fairness of directors embedding a piece of reality so deep into their movies that they only become enjoyable (or not) if the spectator is familiar with the snippet of historical reference. However, I do want to get to the bottom of how PTA’s newest film still managed to make me feel like I am lacking general knowledge about the world, when, as far as I know, there was no specific hidden political or social aspect backing up the chaotic lives of Licorice Pizza’s characters.

The name of the film comes from a store chain that opened in the area where the story takes place back in 1973 in America. The Licorice Pizza stores were selling videos, tapes and recordings. Just like the title of the movie, the name of the store had nothing to do with what it contained.

Universal Pictures

The plot revolves around 15-year-old Gary Valentine and 25-year-old Alana Kane forming a strange friendship that is based on a questionable attraction between the two. Gary is inspired by one of PTA’s childhood friends who, like the character, was a teen actor and entrepreneur. Anderson also wanted to try and visualize an older woman falling for a charismatic boy and that is how Alana Kane’s character was born. She is enacted by Alana Haim, musician and actress, for whom PTA directed many music videos.

The story basically contains only one continuous element: Gary desperately trying to pursue Alana and convincing her to finally admit her love for him. They repeatedly get jealous of each other, since in each sequence of the plot, one of them finds new opportunities to flirt with someone else. Alana, aware of the immorality of their age difference, continuously denies her affection towards Gary. Up until the last minutes of the film, she manages to keep her distance, but she eventually gives in and gets called out as: “Mrs Alana Valentine!”. As the story unfolds, the movie purposefully makes you forget about the initial age problem with the depicted relationship. At first, you can see Gary going to school, going to auditions, hanging with his mom, while Alana is the typical twenty-something-year-old who desperately wants to get out of her parents’ house. However, at one point, the movie just says (excuse my vernacular) sweet fuck all and decides to depart from conventions completely.

For the rest, we see Alana and Gary pursuing different career paths and starting up companies together, while symbolically diminishing the age difference between the two by treating them as equal business partners. They change professions at any moment of the plot, going from selling water beds to Alana trying to make it as an actress. In the final part, Gary’s last entrepreneurial idea is to open a store for selling and trying out pinball machines. The movie jumps between settings and storylines any way it wants, making it hard to comprehend what is happening on the screen. Additionally, there is always a thin connection between an actual historical event impacting their business and how realistically they solve a problem that arises (e.g.: the waterbed store goes bankrupt after the oil crisis in the 1970s, so they start to deliver cans of water and mattresses to private homes). The embeddedness in the contemporary context is fainty but present.

The chaotic plotline also does not help with the interpretation of the movie. PTA connects several themes (e.g.: feminism, morality, gender and age roles, etc.) but does not explore either one of them on a deeper level. The movie pulls you in but just enough so that you end up leaving the cinema confused.

Watching this movie felt like I was listening to the inside jokes of adults who were teenagers in Hollywood during the 70s and are remembering the good old days quite vaguely. Licorice Pizza is filled with moments I decided to just let go of and enjoy, but I was uncertain if that was what Anderson would want me to do. Not because the spectator has to always look through the director’s lens, but because the cinematography and atmosphere were so immersing and beautiful that I found it hard to believe that I should be spending my time making sense of the chaotic, broken chain of events.

There are a lot of references, easter eggs, to the culture industry of the 70s which I believe to be not necessary to recognize in order to enjoy the movie. For example, Bradley Cooper makes an appearance as Jon Peters – famous film producer and actor in the 70s – also mentioning Barbra Streisand several times in the diegesis. The ironic cultural reference relies on the fact that Peters and Streisand played the main characters of the 1976 version of A Star Is Born, which was recently remade by Bradley Cooper in 2018. However, the discontinuity of the plot overshadows even the slightest chance of recognizing these references. The film keeps on throwing information at the spectators, but it does so incredibly subtly while the story itself runs into extremes.

Jürgen Fauth

On the other side, the camera movement and organization of shots is just plain beautiful. PTA plays with different angles that help direct and engage the spectator’s attention. Even if someone does not look out for that aspect usually when going to the cinema, some frames are so incredibly creative that it is hard not to find entertainment and pleasure in them. Furthermore, the chaos that describes the character dynamics is not always a disadvantage. The actors make the dialogues sound witty and light, adding a layer of innocent humour to the movie. Some scenarios are so absurd that it is the grounded acting that saves those scenes. I also have to say congratulations to the set and costume designers because every last pixel in each shot looks authentic and pretty, painting the perfect atmosphere to the movie. These elements made me laugh and watch in awe, making the two hours and twenty-four minutes actually enjoyable.

I understand how the making of Licorice Pizza could have been entertaining and nostalgic for the people working on it, but it did not hit the desired artistic trigger, when you get shivers from a good artistic experience, I expected based on the beautiful shots and setting of the mood the movie provided from the start. Even though the film is filled with references to the time and its agents of when it was set, in the 70s, it does not require the spectator to know every single detail about that era. However, if the references are not enough to keep someone engaged and entertained, the plot won’t do it for them either. Although, while in the movie theatre, I actually enjoyed watching it because I still found it entertaining, the aftertaste made the viewing experience bittersweet.

Designed by: Nina Gueorguieva

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