Licorice Pizza Paul Anderson (USA; 2021) Alana Haim; Cooper Hoffman
viewed Tyneside Cinema 18 Jan 22; ticket £10.75
Like the waterbeds Gary sells in ‘Licorice Pizza’ (without mentioning their tendency to leak), the movie itself is a constant stream of leakage about the narcissistic culture of which it is both product and beneficiary.
With its setting in an idealised world of ‘70’s California, Anderson’s movie promotes the simple Panglossian message to the target audience: that all is well with the world in the best of all possible worlds. In this care-free rollover society of shifting suburban mores, entitlement and narcissism have taken the place of Bougainvillea as the new source of life’s colourisation.
Anderson’s ‘Licorice Pizza’ (LP) is simply an advert. What’s it selling? Like all ads it’s selling wish fulfilment; the possibility of a state of mind enabled by a product. Anderson uses every trick in the Madison Avenue handbook to legitimise adolescent desire by associating it with the positive vibes of American socio-cultural imperatives: music and success. LP’s message is: Buy the Californian Dream.
The core of the film lies in the character of Gary. He’s a 15 year old actor come businessman come lover-boy, who through the film remains in hot pursuit of Alana, a 25 year old woman – but in the contemporary coin is just about going on 16. Gary like millions of boys before him is infatuated by an older woman; he craves the imputed maturity of her presence grace and favour. It’s what’s usually called a ‘crush’: a state that is often but not always, left wisely undeclared. Not in Gary’s case or we’d have another sort of film. Anderson, because Licorice Pizza is set in LaLaLand which is premised on a fervent quasi-ideological belief in overcoming all obstacles, indulges a script line of adolescent wish fulfilment and of the legitimacy of adolescent male desire. A celebration of narcissism vindicated.
The film is made up of a series of interconnected but more or less discrete sequences, chronicling the ebb and flow of Gary’s pursuit of Alana. It’s an exposition of the American Dream, most recently given an outing in Disney’s ‘Minari’: work hard = succeed = get what you want. The success of Gary’s pursuit of Alana is never in doubt – she’s not going to be able to escape, as Anderson has stacked all the cards in favour of a Calilalafornian play out.
The devices and manipulations Anderson employs in his scenario, not only to bring about the desired union but to sell it to the audience are drawn from the basic primers of the advertising industry: Distract and Associate.
LP is pitching a sleazy boy-child wish fulfilment masturbation fantasy that has to be decked out as a legitimate love story. The first page of the ad play book is: listen to the music; exploit the sounds. Every significant event in Licorice Pizza is scored, garlanded full volume, with a feel-good track. The soundtrack is designed into the scenario to subliminally affirm Gary and Alana’s relationship by associating it with the good vibes of the music. It’s a cheap trick designed to overwhelm any of the viewers’ reflective reservations by triggering in them a conditioned emotional response to the familiar songs. Of course it’s effective.
Anderson’s second main legitimation of Gary’s pursuit, is the plotting out of his career as an entrepreneur. Success in business denotes the ultimate American achievement. By rights and by implication such success gives you the right to anything you want: including most importantly, women. Gary’s business acumen legitimises his hots for Alana, the more so as at one point he literally buys her by employing her. Individual business success, because it is the ultimate pinnacle of self achievement in this society, brings with it the assumption of other positive character traits such as: maturity self discipline and intelligence The point of Anderson’s scripting is to stack up Gary as an entrepreneur thereby allowing his character to be credited with adult traits that legitimise his ardent desire for a relationship with Alana.
Dishonesty lies at the core of LP. It feels like a story of faked achievement driven by narcissistic self love and delusion, is being sold as a remedial for the dark atmosphere of the times . Looked at dispassionately, Gary is little more than a self satisfied little prick, perhaps excusable because of his age; Alana a typical retarded adrift child-woman whose judgement is scattered by the first snort of money or success. Clamped together by the overweening music the movie celebrates them in the final sequence as they hurl themselves into each others arms. The final clinch; the kiss that resolves.
What is disturbing is that LP has struck a chord exactly where it was pitched: at the under 40 demographic. For whom it seems to have sounded all the notes they craved. LP comprises cultural arrogance festering a narcissism that thrives in an economy of conspicuous consumption. The attraction of Anderson’s movie bodes ill for the future of the planet whose problems are exactly exacerbated by these phenomena.