In Licorice Pizza, Everyone is Pretending to Be a Grown-Up. Especially the Grown-Ups.
Olivia Rutigliano on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Latest Film
Licorice Pizza, the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson, is full of children who act like adults and adults who act like children. Blurring these divisions is precisely the point—every character is in an equal state of pretending, all the time.
The film’s promotional materials have sold it as a coming-of-age story, and it is, but in many ways for its gang of childish fourflushers, it is also a staying-of-age story. In Licorice Pizza, everyone must fight to find meaning in their lives at their own pace and in their own time, and however mismatched that meaning is for one’s expected age group doesn’t really seem to matter. What matters seems to be finding meaning at all.
The film follows Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old self-described “showman,” as he lives a bustling life in 1973 Los Angeles. A child actor, he travels across the country to attend auditions and appear on TV specials, while also running his own public relations firm with his mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis). He has a “usual table” at a local watering hole, initiates numerous lucrative business ventures, and insistently hits on older women, all with the confidence of a much older man—which is to say, a teenage boy.
The main object of his affections is Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the band “Haim” fame), a pissed-off 25-year-old he meets working his high school’s picture day. He flirts with her aggressively, she rebuffs his affections, but they have an undeniable connection, and it’s not long before they become best friends.The film’s promotional materials have sold it as a coming-of-age story, and it is, but in many ways for its gang of childish fourflushers, it is also a staying-of-age story.
Alana lives with her parents (played by Alana Haim’s real parents, Moti and Donna Haim) and her two older sisters (played by her real sisters and bandmates, Este and Danielle Haim) and she is both chagrinned and intrigued that Gary, a precocious adolescent, has accomplished more in his short life than in her slightly longer one. She is immature—insecure, naïve, angsty and longing to be loved and feel important—and although she is clearly older than Gary, she also often acts like a stereotypical teenager more than he does. (Most notably, while Gary goes after women of all ages, Alana has clearly never had a boyfriend.)
Then again, that Gary is a kid aping grown-up life so dramatically—like the Artful Dodger, he is the ringleader of a band of skinny preteens who aid him in his various hustles—only makes him seem like more of a kid. As these two orbit each other, Licorice Pizza winds itself in circles, emotionally aging its protagonists up and down, back and forth, as their bond grows into something like love.
Alana and Gary go into business together selling and delivering waterbeds (alongside Gary’s attempt to get Alana into the movies). However, Alana is trying to find herself, while Gary knows who he is, and this causes tension that sends them into potentially threatening situations, and also wrests them apart. Notably, there is a distinction between their give-and-take brand of immaturity and the kind practiced by the much older folks in the film: particularly, the bevvy of egomaniacal and unhinged Hollywood types the various youngsters find in their path.
These individuals are disgusting at best—like John Michael Higgins’s racist restaurateur—and dangerous at worst—like the actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn), who longs for his glory days making 60s war movies so much that he drunkenly pulls off a treacherous stunt in the backyard of a family restaurant. Or worse, the volatile celebrity Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), who offers a threat of physical violence, giving a deranged and menacing ultimatum to the kids installing his waterbed.
Licorice Pizza takes place in the early 70s; watching the film in 2021, it’s impossible to forget that these young people will become—have become—real adults. Is this unpleasant world the fate that waits for them, especially because, in their current youthful moments, they are already perched atop their own slippery slopes?
Licorice Pizza is suffused with the idea of becoming “another version of yourself”—most specifically by Alana’s constant attempts at reinvention, her constant hopes for attention from someone who will make her feel like more than herself, and then her realization that she must be this person for herself. (There’s a scene in the middle in which we wonder if she has changed her identity, but this turns out to be pretend, too.)
As in Peter Pan, permanently transforming into an adult is the film’s biggest peril, until it becomes the film’s biggest necessity. Alana is delaying this for as long as she can. A nice visual indicator of this theme is that Alana and Gary (but mostly Alana) spend much of the film breaking into runs—powerful, pavement-slapping, breathless runs—the kind of running you do when you’re a kid and you’re either really mad or really happy. “Running” is to Licorice Pizza as “flying” is to Peter Pan—ignited by feeling and belief and camaraderie, it is a physical attempt to outrun fate, to prolong youth, to maintain freedom.
Gary wants to age into his next stage, but Alana doesn’t want to grow anymore until she can accomplish more in her life so as not to feel like a failure. This is interesting, especially because the real Alana has been in a successful pop band for nearly a decade. She and her family (playing characters with the same names), are alternate, time-traveling versions of themselves. (Alana Kane’s birthday, mentioned briefly, is even the same day as Alana Haim’s.) And in a recent interview in The New York Times, Paul Thomas Anderson mentioned that he was inspired to make the film with the Haim family after realizing that the Haim matriarch, Donna, was one of his own teachers (whom he adored) when she was a young, unmarried woman. As such, Licorice Pizza often feels like an exercise in ruminating on “what once was” just as much as “what might have been.” The film asks us to consider this visually, too; its frames are full of reflective surfaces (mostly via store windows), that project the characters as having second lives, alternate selves.
Licorice Pizza is a sunny affair. Anderson, who also does the film’s sun-bleached cinematography (along with Michael Bauman), has visually engineered the kind of lushness with which you might remember the San Fernando Valley in the summer of 1973, if you were looking back on it now. The light is golden, somehow, even when it’s nighttime. The streets look like a place where anything can happen, to us and its characters tortured by possibility.
The film finds a period-appropriate anthem in the David Bowie song “Life on Mars.” It’s prominently featured in the film (as well as its promotional materials), not to mention that its lyrics seem to literally say much of what’s at work in the film itself, the story about a disillusioned “girl with mousy hair” who lives with her parents and takes refuge from her disappointing life via a flirtation with the movies—which in turn surround her with meaningless, myriad spectacles that don’t fulfill her anyway. But the song also seems to underscore the film’s cryptic thesis statement. If there is any line in “Life on Mars” that can unlock the mysteries of Licorice Pizza, I think it might be its most quizzical and damning sentence, “Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow.” In this moment, as in Licorice Pizza on the whole, a joyous symbol of childhood magic grows up to resemble what it has actually, truly been all along: a distorted product of its capitalistic milieu.
Is this the road that Gary, a born wheeler and dealer (and a veritable harasser of women), is headed on? What about Alana, a woman in her twenties who grows attracted to someone a decade younger than she is, after he brags to her about being semi-famous? For all that Licorice Pizza is about the very real, very powerful feelings that we have when we are young that propel us towards the magical moments we dream about, it is also constantly threatening to us that we might lose those things about ourselves, and become people we barely recognize, in the process.