He sees Alana across a crowded California high school walkway in 1973. And Gary Valentine knows, in that moment, that she is the love of his life—the woman he will someday marry.
So what if she’s 25 and gainfully employed by the Tiny Toes Picture company? So what if he’s 15 and still in algebra? Age is just a number, he believes, and nothing can stop the path of true love.
He asks her to meet him for dinner. Alana, having nothing better to do, shows up. And in spite of herself, she feels a strange chemistry at work.
Gary’s different, she must admit. He’s a former child actor turned adolescent huckster, the kind of guy who’ll earn his first million before taking his first legal drink. And while she has a reasonably OK time with the kid, Alana knows any romance is a non-starter. “We’re not boyfriend/girlfriend,” she tells him. “Remember that.”
Sure, Gary says. Sure I’ll remember.
But girlfriend or no, Alana sticks around. She serves as Gary’s chaperone on a publicity swing to New York. When Gary starts selling a new-fangled, state-of-the-art thing called a waterbed, Alana’s his first employee—and good thing, since she’s the only one with a driver’s license.
Maybe Gary and Alana can’t be romantic partners just yet. But business partners? For Gary, that’s almost as nice. If there’s one thing that might rival Alana in Gary’s affections, it’s success: Bold, bald success.
And if the business is a failure, it’ll still give him oodles of time with Alana—time to ooze his particular brand of charm and chip away at her defenses. But if the business takes off, why Gary just might be able to treat Alana to swanky dinners, charm her with expensive gifts … maybe even buy himself a car. And given enough time, Gary might even be old enough to drive it.
Alana’s quite serious about that whole we’re not boyfriend/girlfriend thing for most of the movie. But the two do care about each other. When Gary’s wrongly arrested, Alana literally runs to the police station to offer what support she can. When Alana takes a tumble off a motorcycle, Gary sprints toward her to make sure she’s OK.
Alana and her family are Jewish. When Alana brings home a beau for dinner, Alana’s father invites him to offer the bentsching (or blessing), which the boyfriend declines. While he admits that he was raised Jewish himself, his “personal path has led me to atheism.” (The guy is pretty much ejected from the house, and Alana essentially tells him that if he’s circumcised, he’s still most certainly Jewish.)
We hear references to Alana’s Jewish upbringing elsewhere, and a talent agent talks about Alana’s “very Jewish nose.”
With Gary’s encouragement, Alana interviews with Gary’s agent. She asks Alana whether she’d be willing to appear topless. She says yes initially, until she catches Gary’s horrified look—and even though she backtracks, Gary’s still aghast. “There’s too much nudity in movies!” he tells her later.
There’s no explicit nudity in this movie, but Alana’s willingness to disrobe before a camera is still a point of contention. Alana relents and shows Gary her breasts (viewers only see Alana’s bare back). When he asks if he can touch them, though, Alana slaps his face. (This is probably a good time to remind you that Gary’s 15 years old, while Alana is in her mid-20s.)
Alana dresses in a bikini for the grand opening for the waterbed store. Another bikini-clad woman lies on a waterbed as a marketing device. (Alana wears outfits that reveal midriff and quite a bit of leg as well, and it’s obvious that she rarely wears a bra.) When Alana tries to sell a waterbed over the phone to a client, Gary insists that she make her pitch “sexier,” which she does—filling the pitch with double-entendres and erotic suggestions.
A man has dinner with his male lover, but asks a woman to escort the lover home (to keep up his pretenses as a straight man). We hear quite a bit of conversation about the couple’s relationship.
A Hollywood bigwig brags about the number of women he’s bedded, and he uncomfortably comes on to several woman during his brief time on screen (including Alana). Gary also turns his affections on other women and girls during the movie, making Alana jealous. Alana has dinner with a much older actor (though nothing comes of it). She talks with another boyfriend about whether he’s circumcised or not.
Gary ogles ads for X-rated movies and services in the newspaper. (We see said ads and some suggestive photos that go with them.) A woman tells Alana that Gary’s constantly asking her for sexual release. A lady selling waterbeds turns on some erotic charm on Gary: Whether she’s interested in Gary or just wants to sell the bed is unclear. Waterbeds become conduits for plenty of sexual discussion. (Gary is told that his original name for his company—Soggy Bottoms—doesn’t have the erotic feel that he was shooting for.) Gary makes a wildly inappropriate (and unfunny) joke on live television.
People discuss private body parts. We see couples kiss and make out, sometimes on waterbeds. Gary and Alana lie on a waterbed, the latter unconscious: Gary reaches for Alana’s breast as she sleeps, then thinks better about it. Gary and his friends make incredibly lewd gestures, using portable gas cans as props. The owner of a Japanese restaurant initially wants to promote the eatery’s beautiful Japanese employees rather than its food. Another restaurant (though historically accurate) could be interpreted as having a suggestive name. Alana’s boss slaps her rear.
Jack Holden, an apparently well-known actor, replicates a stunt done in one of his movies—jumping a wall of flame on a motorcycle. Alana is supposed to do the stunt with him, but she falls off the bike when Jack roars off to the jump. Jack falls off the bike after the jump too—but he declares himself just fine (and immediately quaffs another beer).
Gary delivers a waterbed to a Hollywood bigwig: The man threatens the lives of Gary and his entire family should Gary mess up his house (threatening to “choke out” Gary’s 9-year-old brother in front of him). The man threatens a total stranger too—holding a lighter in front of a gasoline nozzle as prep to turn the thing into a flame thrower. He and others smash car windows.
Gary is accused of murder. Someone is thwopped with a pillow. We hear that Alana’s father has trained his family in Krav Maga—an Israeli martial arts system that (Alana says) utilizes very ordinary household objects in very lethal ways. We hear some gruesome war stories that may or may not be true.
About 36 f-words and another dozen s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—,” and “pr–k.” God’s name is misused at least 10 times, most of those with the word “d–n.”
One of Gary’s friends suggests getting prospective waterbed buyers to use marijuana as a sales inducement. (When he later suggests tracking down some LSD, too, Gary tells him to just stick with weed.) During the waterbed store’s grand opening, Alana announces that she’s stoned.
Jack Holden and one of his Hollywood friends—director Rex Blau—drink heavily during a dinner (leading to some dangerous hijinks detailed in the violent content section). Alana quaffs martinis during said dinner, which she announces she’s never had before. Fifteen-year-old Gary—at the same restaurant—tells his underage guests that he can get them all martinis too.
Alana shares what appears to be a marijuana joint with her sister. Several characters smoke cigarettes.
The male co-owner of a Japanese restaurant talks to his Japanese wives (he has two of them during the course of the movie) in English—but using an outlandish Japanese accent, as if assuming the accent will make him more intelligible to her. When one responds to him in Japanese, someone asks the owner what she’s saying. He admits he has no idea.
When Alana’s getting ready to audition for Gary’s talent agent, Gary tells her that if she—or a casting agent—should ask her if she can do something (sing or dance, for instance), she should say that she should always say that she can, whether she can or not: If Alana gets the part, he rationalizes, she can learn how to do whatever she’s being asked to do after the fact. (Alana later tells agents that she can fence, shoot arrows and speak Portuguese.)
Like Gary Valentine, Licorice Pizza Director Paul Thomas Anderson is a bit of a flirt: But instead of women, he flirts with Oscars.
Anderson’s previous seven movies have been nominated for a total of 25 Academy Awards. And if the awards-season buzz is accurate, you can count on Licorice Pizza netting several more.
But while clearly Anderson knows how to make interesting films, and while Licorice Pizza’s young leads Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman (the latter the son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) are likable and quite good, we can’t lose sight of the movie’s central premise: An egregiously inappropriate relationship between a 15-year-old boy and a woman at least 10 years his senior.
Another film might’ve framed this as something of a cautionary story. Gary’s mom is barely around to care and guide he and his younger brother. Gary is essentially raising himself, glorying in his rabid business acumen as the friends around him get stoned. But Licorice Pizza romanticizes Gary’s unfettered teenhood, embracing its excesses as enthusiastically as Gary would embrace Alana if she’d let him.
Licorice Pizza is a love story—not, as it turns out, Alana and Gary’s strange romance, but rather a nostalgic love for adolescence itself, and adolescent behavior. The film roots itself in Southern California in the early 1970s, where the bankrupt values of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were supposedly still in full bloom. It removes any guardrails that moms, dads or other conscientious guardians might offer, and instead gives us a handful of adults who are more childish than the kids. It barrels down a hill backwards and, when it screeches to a halt, it revels in the experience—not in a thank-goodness-we-survived-and-let’s-never-do-that-again sort of way, but in a wasn’t-that-fun-let’s-try-it-without-the-brakes-next-time sort of way.
Licorice Pizza gets its name from a former chain of record stores in Southern California—a name that Anderson says triggers an almost “Pavlovian response” in him (according to Variety), which whisks him back to his childhood.
The name feels fitting in another way, though. A real licorice pizza would taste pretty terrible. And you’d almost certainly regret consuming it now … or later.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.