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Licorice pizza tastes bad

The sure to be Oscar-nominated Licorice Pizza unfortunately uses quality filmmaking and storytelling to blur the lines of right and wrong.


Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.

Licorice pizza tastes bad
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The Bible warns Christians to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. So be forewarned that this is what the new movie Licorice Pizza is.

The film, which is garnering much Oscar buzz, was written and directed by critically acclaimed Paul Thomas Anderson (known for There Will Be Blood and Magnolia) and is being sold as an homage to his childhood and the coming-of-age sweetness of first love.

The story is set in southern California in the 1970s and centers on a boy named Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and his pursuit to win the affections of Alana Kane (Alana Haim). The premise seems innocent enough, and the film and the development of their relationship are both quite well done. In fact, they are so well done that audiences (and most critics) will likely praise the film and find themselves rooting for the two to become a couple.

But there is a major problem: Alana is 25 and Gary is 15. This significant impropriety causes Licorice Pizza not to be the nostalgic masterpiece it should have been. Instead, it is an unfortunate and deceitful piece of “art” that resonates with the zeitgeist of this age by normalizing an inappropriate relationship in a way that makes it almost seem OK.

The film achieves its deception by portraying the precocious Gary as almost unbelievably mature for his age. At 15, we find Gary is in many ways raising his younger brother, is a semi-successful child actor, and has the drive and wherewithal to start his own waterbed store and pinball arcades. In addition, Hoffman, who stars in his first film and is the son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, was 17 when the movie was filmed and therefore Gary appears to be older than his age would suggest.

With Alana the film moves in the opposite direction, revealing her to be a young woman trapped between adolescence and adulthood. One moment she seems to be on a path towards maturity but more often appears to fit right in with Gary and his friends. It is by this “merging” of their maturities that the film slowly seduces audiences into believing that it might just be alright that they would date.

While the film is rated R for language, sexual material, and some drug use, it does not ever fully suggest that Alana and Gary’s developing relationship is sexual in nature. Gary is obviously interested in Alana physically, but the film carefully skirts the crossing of any statutory rape lines. This “tactic” only adds to the creation of a more sympathetic environment for their relationship.

One scene summarizes the film’s relativistic messaging. Alana asks her sister if she thinks it is weird that she spends so much time with Gary and his 15-year-old friends. Her sister’s answer demonstrates the film’s ambivalence toward any sense of objective right and wrong as she responds, “It is whatever you think it is.”

The fact that this movie is receiving almost exclusively critical praise is another example of the hypocrisy that is pervasive in contemporary culture. I found myself wondering if the accolades would be so great if Alana had been Gary’s teacher or if Gary had been 25 and Alana 15.

Well-crafted art and films like Licorice Pizza do contribute to the deconstruction of societal norms and mores by expertly blurring and distorting the lines of right and wrong. This decline in morality, though, should not surprise us, for it is as C.S. Lewis once said in The Abolition of Man, “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

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