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‘Licorice Pizza’ Underscores The Lost Art Of Harmless Provocation

‘Licorice Pizza’ is a sweet coming-of-age story, set in a lost decade, with masterful performances from novice actors, told slowly but brilliantly by one of Hollywood’s great directors.

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Paul Thomas Anderson is only half right about “Licorice Pizza.”

“There’s no line that’s crossed, and there’s nothing but the right intentions,” he told The New York Times this month, claiming, “There isn’t a provocative bone in this film’s body.”

That’s a false dichotomy. “Licorice Pizza” absolutely crosses lines but, as Anderson insists, with “the right intentions.” If such a feat were impossible, we’d be left with Marvel movies.

Anderson’s argument was prompted by a question from Kyle Buchanan, who asked, “Does it surprise you how some people are reacting to the age difference between Alana and Gary?”

Like “Phantom Thread,” “Licorice Pizza” is a beautiful, slow burn. The simmering drama is a magnetic attachment between 15-year-old Gary and 25-year-old Alana, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper and Alana Haim. (In full disclosure, I am a Haim super fan and my biases will not be easily checked.) Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody felt compelled to say, “It’s important to note that there’s no sexual relationship between Gary and Alana.”

(Spoilers ahead.)

That’s relying on a narrow definition of sexuality. Alana begrudgingly shows Gary her breasts. His hand hovers over one of them. They kiss. The power of that kiss, by the way, is in its intensity. Brody is welcome to interpret it as a gesture of friendship, but that could have been accomplished with a nice, warm hug. Instead, it’s a kiss. On the lips.

It’s interesting, too. Cooper’s entrepreneurial aggression electrifies Alana, who learns to love him through their mutually beneficial hustles. For him, it’s a ticket to her heart. For her, it’s a ticket out of the Valley. For both, it’s confusing.

For the rest of us, it’s only interesting because it’s not merely a gesture of friendship and because the age difference is, to borrow a word, “provocative.” Should a 25-year-old woman be kissing a 15-year-old kid? Probably not. Is it the same as a 25-year-old man kissing a 15-year-old girl?

Back in 2018, deep in the heart of Me Too, things got weird after Asia Argento was accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old actor when she was 37. Argento, one of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers, had become one of Me Too’s most visible spokespersons.

Argento had few defenders, perhaps both because of the big age gap and the ostensible hypocrisy. To be clear, this is not to draw a parallel with the relationship in “Licorice Pizza,” but to say I’m not sure the film would have been received so well just a few years ago, when sensitivities were heightened.

That would have been too bad. It will be too bad if, after the film premieres on Christmas, people argue it shouldn’t have been made. But it won’t be too bad if people are provoked.

A thoughtful and languid film is precisely how we should be litigating our sexual politics. “Licorice Pizza” is not “Manhattan,” not by a long shot. Its “intentions” are pure. The line that’s crossed is hardly an endorsement of abuse, although recent revelations about Hollywood’s track record on such matters have likely primed some moviegoers to be on high alert.

The Daily Beast breathlessly backed Anderson’s assertion that “Licorice Pizza” crosses no lines. “It’s not sexually charged at all,” argues Marlow Stern, one of the media’s most reliable opponents of free thought who had the audacity to say, “Audiences these days often make the mistake of allowing their personal politics to color their feelings toward a film or TV show—to the point where if a given film or series doesn’t directly align with their current views, they deem it a moral failure of some kind.”

“But movies hold a mirror to society,” added Stern, “and should thus be afforded the opportunity to be messy, as life itself is very messy, assuming the picture doesn’t veer into exploitation territory, which Licorice Pizza most certainly does not.”

Applied consistently, of course, that’s a great standard. But there’s not much use in pretending “Licorice Pizza” is an edgeless story about friendship. It’s also about friendship overcoming adolescent sexual attraction. A girl in her mid-twenties kisses a teenager on the lips. She shows him her breasts. That’s sexual, whether she wants it to be or not. And it’s okay—indeed it’s necessary—to grapple with that.

“Licorice Pizza” is a sweet coming-of-age story, set in a lost decade, with masterful performances from novice actors, told slowly but brilliantly by one of Hollywood’s great directors. It’s a nostalgic romp through American culture in an era of big change. If it rankles people, Anderson should welcome their discomfort and they should too. At best, it’s all fun and games; at worst, the question is murky. That’s just fine.