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‘Licorice Pizza’ Controversy Breakdown

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza has been one of the more polarising films of recent memory. On one hand, it has received widespread critical acclaim and is a major Oscar frontrunner. In fact, it’s currently my pick to win the big award (although I am admittedly yet to watch The Tragedy of Macbeth and Clifford the Big Red Dog). 

On the other hand, despite this critical adulation, Anderson’s movie has been steeped in controversy since day one, primarily for two distinct reasons. The first of these reasons I absolutely understand and empathise with; the second, frankly, I do not.

The first major controversy surrounding Licorice Pizza pertains to the character of Jerry Frick, an American businessman played by John Michael Higgins who repeatedly talks down to his Japanese wives in an accent so racially insensitive it feels like a verbal tribute to Mickey Rooney’s “Yellowface” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Anderson has since defended the accent by arguing it is historically accurate (the 1970s was a very different time), though this still fails to answer the root of the issue. 

They add nothing, are ragingly unfunny, and ultimately contribute to the pervading atmosphere of anti-Asian humour

The film is neither a documentary nor a biting satire, and the sequences themselves are more “comedic” (note: uncomfortable) than anything else. They are also comparatively inconsequential to the overall film, which arguably makes it worse. They add nothing, are ragingly unfunny, and ultimately contribute to the pervading atmosphere of anti-Asian humour that has been especially thorny these past few years. As much as I love Licorice Pizza: yuck.

The second controversy, in contrast, is not so simple and requires a little more nuance to break down, including some major spoilers. To briefly recap the plot, Licorice Pizza follows two individuals – Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim) – as they undergo a spiritual journey together through the heart of Los Angeles in the early 1970s. The source of controversy lies with the characters’ ages: Gary is 15 and Alana is 25, which even in the 1970s would (hopefully) have raised some red flags. 

Anderson, in turn, has been criticised for allegedly glorifying the romance, and it’s not entirely difficult to see why. The film is a breezy, warm and endlessly charming road movie through life that flirts with being a rom-com.. It is, in short, a bona fide feel-good adventure, propelled by so much sun-soaked energy that even John Michael Higgins cannot slow it down. However, to claim that the film glorifies its subject matter would be an unjust reduction of its complexities and nuances. This is not a reckless ode to paedophilic “love” stories in the same vein as Lolita; rather, it is a study of individuals, flawed beyond belief, whose shared love is part of how they rationalise their youth.

Alana … is a lone wanderer – a slightly older woman (although ultimately still young) lost without purpose

The characters that Anderson crafts, consequently, are fundamentally complex creatures, and are certainly not people to idolise as heroes. Gary is a hustler – a young entrepreneur with purpose whose cocky arrogance, though charming, prevents him from truly connecting with those around him. Alana, in contrast, is a lone wanderer – a slightly older woman (although ultimately still young) lost without purpose whose aimless, dissatisfied existence is slowly drifting into self-destruction. 

They are both deeply flawed individuals, each reckoning in their own unique ways with ambition, jealousy, loneliness, and love – in all its varieties: romantic, platonic, parental – at crucial formative moments in their respective lives. When combined, this previously inner conflict erupts into a cycle of mutually assured destruction, each constantly fighting against the other with a bitter resentment rooted in their longing for something else. Despite this, they are drawn to one another – compulsively, recklessly and somewhat self-destructively. 

Licorice Pizza doesn’t need to explain its characters’ flaws: it demonstrates them quite spectacularly anyway

Their romance, as such, is hardly #relationshipgoals: they fall in love, symbolically break up, and subsequently reconcile consistently throughout like perfectly engineered clockwork. Ample criticism has been directed at Anderson for never explicitly damning their relationship, but in the same way The Godfather doesn’t need a thirty-minute lecture by Francis Ford Coppola explaining why decapitating horses is a morally dubious business strategy, Licorice Pizza doesn’t need to explain its characters’ flaws: it demonstrates them quite spectacularly anyway.

They exist in a world that is fundamentally not our own. It is a world in which Alana can ride on the back of a drunken Sean Penn’s motorcycle as he jumps over a fiery ramp with a swarm of onlookers cheering him on. It is a world in which Bradley Cooper can relish in 70s eccentricity, oozing problematic swagger.

It is an inherently fictional world, almost fantastical in its snapshot of an era, that fundamentally cannot be compared to our own. Licorice Pizza, despite Anderson’s apparent best interests, is not a documentary. It is also not a bible sermon on morality, or a romance, frankly, by any traditional definition of the word. The final few moments, as Alana and Gary rush together in a spur-of-the-moment exultation of passion, is triumphant not because the romance itself is anything to celebrate, but because it remains painstakingly true to these characters, warts and all. 

They each fulfil a crucial purpose in the other’s life: as a young man driven by misguided confidence, Alana is the anchor that keeps Gary’s hubris from destroying him; as a young woman lost without hope, Gary is the signpost that gives Alana direction. They are also innately flawed wherein even this ending is rushed, abrupt and foundationally volatile to the extent that a strong enough breeze could knock it over. But then they will inevitably come back to each other because, for better or worse, that is who they are. No one in their right mind would argue that Licorice Pizza is morally right, but Anderson crafts a world so vibrant and full of colour that reducing it to these binary shades of black-and-white loses the very essence of what he has made.

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