Paul Thomas Anderson has always had a talent for writing fuck-ups
‘There’s no line that’s crossed,’ Paul Thomas Anderson recently told The New York Times, on the subject of the age difference between the leads of his new film, Licorice Pizza (2021), ‘and there’s nothing but the right intentions. It would surprise me if there was some kind of kerfuffle about it, because there’s not that much there […] There isn’t a provocative bone in this film’s body.’ There has, of course, been a kerfuffle: the movie is about a sort-of romance between a (nominally) 20-something woman and a 15-year-old boy, making Anderson’s suggestion that there is nothing provocative about Licorice Pizza somewhat disingenuous. Actually, I think to say that the film is not provocative is to do it a disservice. Do the adult and the child have sex? Certainly not. Do they kiss? Perhaps, depending on how much you take the last ten minutes at face value. Ultimately, whether or not things are consummated does not cancel out the air of obvious and obviously-not-platonic tension that blooms gradually between Gary and Alana, the film’s very shagginess and discursiveness letting what exists between them develop slowly and inexorably. On social media, the two loudest factions seem to be those who believe Paul Thomas Anderson has made a dreamy ode to paedophilia and thus should be cancelled, and those who insist that Licorice Pizza is in fact a giddy, feel-good ode to the unlikely friendship that develops between two lost souls. The truth, I think, is somewhere in between: that the film is about romantic-coded love, and that because it is about romantic-coded love between an adult woman and a teenage boy, is a little messed up. Luckily, it is a movie and not an educational film about how to conduct a healthy, fully-functional relationship, making its freakiness an interesting feature, not a bug.
The first meeting between Gary and Alana both upends our expectations, and establishes their unusual dynamic in a few lines: Gary, nerdy-looking but possessed of a frighteningly adult smoothness, is a schoolboy with the patter of a 50-year-old conman; Alana, who at first demurs when she is asked her age and then suggests that she is 25, is a coltish woman who radiates a peculiarly teenage sort of fury and confusion. A photographer’s lackey at a company called Tiny Toes, getting her ass slapped by her boss and ultimately going nowhere fast, Alana has arrived at Gary’s school for picture day, not so much offering service with a smile as threatening service with a scowl. If the moment the two meet is not exactly what Inherent Vice’s (2014) Doc Sportello would call ‘cootie food,’ it is certainly a moment, and Alana Haim does a fine job of making fictional Alana appear by turns irritated and intrigued by Gary’s dinner invitation. It is difficult to explain how elegantly Anderson engineers these characters so that each seems to exist at a similar point on the continuum of maturity without coming across like one of those unsettling guys who has the ages of consent in every country memorised, but their parity is the point – that this funny little latchkey playboy has any luck at all with somebody who claims to be ten years his senior speaks volumes about where Alana happens to be at, professionally and mentally, at the very moment he decides to chance his arm. What drives her is not necessarily attraction, but a longing for his seriousness and decisiveness to transfer to her by osmosis. Gary Valentine, with his Old Hollywood name and his pedigree as a child actor, has done something with his life already at a very early age, and Alana desperately wants ‘something’ – anything at all – to happen to her, her passivity around the men she meets suggesting that she pictures herself as an inert object that can only be moved by external force.
And yes, it is a little creepy – we are meant to think Alana is not making a sane choice when she meets Gary at the restaurant, so embarrassed and bamboozled by her own decision to be there that she can’t look him in the face when she arrives. Male slackers drawn to teenage girls are hardly unusual in the movies, but the inverse is a little less familiar. “He’s actually a great businessman,” Alana says primly, later, the phrase sounding like an echo of the oft-deployed ‘she’s actually very mature for her age.’ When Anderson depicts her driving an enormous truck down a steep hill in darkness, backwards, her tank empty and her view almost obscured, it’s a funny bit of symbolism – going in blind, running on fumes, struggling to keep the enormity of the situation under full control, Alana is barrelling through life and trying not to crash. Licorice Pizza is at once obsessed with inertia and with forward motion, with parked cars and fuel shortages and with endless, reckless sprinting. Of its two leads, it is Gary we feel least concerned for, and it is probably Gary who appears less vulnerable in spite of his being the kid. Every time the (soggy) bottom falls out of another of his enterprises – his career as a child actor, his attempt to make a fortune out of selling waterbeds – it hardly matters, since the point of being a teenager is to make copious mistakes, to fumble, to figure out what we may or may not want. For Alana, stakes are higher: when we see her slump down despondently on the pavement after guiding that careening truck to safety through the darkness, looking on as Gary and his friends make giggling jokes about the phallic nozzle on a petrol can, we are watching her approach rock bottom in real time.
I should say that I am not entirely sure Alana is the age she says she is, as Anderson leaves room for doubt – at one point she says that she is 28, and then corrects herself, and although this was apparently a flubbed line, he still chose to include it in the final film. I’m also not entirely sure that Gary and Alana’s sweet reunion in the last scene of the movie actually happens, its suddenness and its dreaminess a hair too close to the ambiguous end of Inherent Vice for me to buy it. Still, to look for loopholes is to some extent to deny Licorice Pizza’s genuine strangeness, and to do so is to minimise Alana’s genuine strangeness, her quarter-life crisis being the most fascinating aspect of her character. “Do you think it’s weird I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends all the time?” she asks her sister at one point, an expression settling momentarily on her face that mirrors the self-flagellating look of shame she wears when she first meets him at the restaurant. “I think it’s weird I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends all the time.” He may actually be a great businessman, the look says, but he is not technically a man at all, and she is painfully aware of it. Paul Thomas Anderson has always been adroit at writing fuck-ups, and it is a pleasure to see him applying his considerable talent to creating an extremely fucked-up woman – a Janey-come-lately who ends up being the central character of a coming-of-age film despite almost certainly being an actual adult.