After I watched Licorice Pizza, I did not storm out of the theater in disgust at its alleged paedophilia: 25-year-old photographer’s assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and 15-year-old actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) like each other. Instead, I sat in the Art Deco movie theatre until the lights came on and a packed house of attractive people started to chatter excitedly. I felt exhausted, depressed, and embarrassed by what seemed like feigned enthusiasm for a forgettable film. And I felt exhausted by my own exhaustion: by my own inability to get excited.
Someone recently described to me, vividly, the anhedonia of severe depression: of finding himself in sublime mountains, in champagne-service clubs, with gorgeous women who loved him, feeling nothing. And I guess somewhere on the depressed-neurotic axis there’s an overlap between “I don’t enjoy things anymore” and just wishing you were the type of person who likes Marvel movies and Ed Sheeran and doesn’t feel a bored yet self-satisfied despair as you attempt to chat with the median individual on a dating app.
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There’s something bovine about cinema, which is also what is spectacular about both popular art and art in public: the confirmation that the individual spirit is also the shared spirit, that what is vulnerable and personal and redeemable about us, is in all of us. Art makes us feel realer and deeper, and to share that with others makes us feel less alone. But for the same reason, bad art can also seem like an insult to the human race itself: that’s all we are?
To play on David Foster Wallace: Licorice Pizza is a supposedly good movie I will never see again. Los Angeles, especially, is plastered with ads for the film; so is my demographically overcoded web browser. I am supposed to like the new Paul Thomas Anderson film, having seen quite a few of them already; yeah, I’ve listed “film” on the interests line of my résumé. And, seriously, how many art films are there today besides low-budget films intended for an audience of 100 individuals residing mostly in Bushwick, Israeli-Austrian dramas about the Holocaust, and slow cinema about outsider farmhands from low-GDP EU member states?
Nonetheless, I was left asking myself: what were all those moviegoers so excited about? Why are critics so impressed? How was this moving?
Much as the film’s alleged anti-Asian racism is more shockingly unfunny than it is shocking, the romance in Licorice Pizza is neither revolting nor remarkable. Anderson can make touching films about characters struggling toward misguided intimacy. But Licorice Pizza isn’t even a cloying teen romance: Gary and Alana neither consummate their mutual attraction nor even mourn it, and instead simply bounce around for over two hours: cute, charming, and completely inconsequential.
The moment Gary asks out Alana, she cheerfully declines with, “That’s illegal!”, but it’s not like he tries that hard, anyway. At their first dinner, they tell each other they’re not going to forget each other, but they seem pretty happy to goof around with his more prepubescent-looking friends in zany, period-piece pursuits (waterbeds, pinballs, slightly unsavoury politics). There’s little narrative momentum, little impediment, and little sense of “the stakes”. The leads are affable, and Haim is astonishing; but these characters are as thin as the candy on an M&M.
Previous Anderson fare arguably went a little overboard on the downbeats: all that really degrading stuff at the end of Boogie Nights, all those dying men in Magnolia, all the violence in Punch Drunk Love. But at least that mattered. Here, the downbeats are basically that two people who’ve agreed not to date get a little bit jealous when the other one flirts with someone else. The tensest scene involves Alana driving an out-of-gas truck in reverse down the Hollywood Hills. To no one’s surprise, it works.
But the scene after that, I think, holds the key to the movie. They’ve gotten the truck down the hill and collected some jerrycans from the gas station. The sun is rising, painting the quiet road in almost psychedelic purples and oranges. The younger boys are ecstatic silhouettes on the horizon, laughing and leaping and pretending to hump each other with the gas tanks. Meanwhile, Alana is crouched on the sidewalk, near trash and glass, head hunched over her knees — something good has happened, something fun is going on, but she can’t enjoy it.
I don’t know why Anderson made a film that was clearly going to be accused of paedophilia — he told Variety that while walking by his local middle school, he saw a teenager flirting with a girl taking school pictures, and instantly thought the premise was “ripe for humour”. And anyway, he says: “It’s not romantic in any consummation of things. That would be inappropriate.”
Regardless of whatever PTA was thinking, we live in the era of the “Mommy Girlfriend”. Infinitely affirming and infinitely caring, the Mommy GF is the ideal mate for a generation of men that commonly self-identifies as autistic or anxious, and who have no idea how (or whether) to be masculine or mature. With the Mommy GF, you can stay a kid. As an iconic 2013 4chan post went: “that face when you’ll never have a cute slightly older Mommy GF who cleans up after your loveable-fuckup-self, helps you do your taxes, brown-bags a lunch for you to take to work, wakes you up on time, and cuddles you to sleep.”
That’s not exactly the deal here; I doubt the phrase “Mommy GF” was thrown around Licorice Pizza brainstorms, and Gary, anyway, seems like a perfectly confident and competent young man. But for better or worse, the Mommy GF has graduated into end-of-year lists — and maybe even real life. A number of millennial girls in my circle have started dating Zoomer boys, and I’ve been wondering about these relationships.
They’re all around 30. They’re all, more or less, ambitious. It’s tried-and-true for the clout-chasing young woman, to date an older man. But why date a younger one? As Mariah Kreutter has pointed out, it’s hard to see why Alana’s “borderline incoherent character” has any interest whatsoever in dating a 15-year-old. What, after all, does the Mommy GF want?
Maybe this: to enjoy things, one last time. Very young people, especially boys, enjoy things with an unbridled, carefree insouciance that evaporates the second one becomes concerned with becoming an “adult”. And perhaps on the fringes of show business and in the afterglow of the Sixties — or in the youth-obsessed inertia of millennial life, screwed by 2008, scared of settling, mired in therapy-brained exploration of the unconstrained yet unfulfilled self — one can soak in that sweet, warm limbo for just a little longer.
But sooner or later, it has to end. As a young woman told me recently, for the educated millennial woman, it’s a bit odd to marry in your twenties; but once you hit 30, you’re suddenly “an unmarried 30-year-old woman”. Essentially, you’ve got one year. The clock starts ticking, and all time becomes time lost. Every joy contains its future loss. And for the archetypical millennial woman — with no savings, no house, and no children – ageing reaps no accomplishment and no satisfying narrative. It’s purely something that makes you look worse in photos.
If you date the younger guy, you can zip around the Valley plotting hare-brained schemes, or at least understand TikTok. But you’ll still feel old, even older than you are. Just 25, Alana is, as Gary calls her, the “old woman”. It’s unclear what her main worry is — material success, glory, being single — but she’s going to be worried for the rest of her life. And Gary doesn’t care about any of that, not really. He’s just having a good time. And seeing that good time — a band of boys, playing as the sun comes up — she wants to cry. Tellingly, from the next scene, she commits herself (rather unconvincingly) to “politics”.
But this breezy, sugar-dust cloud of a film doesn’t dwell in despair. At the end of it, Alana and Gary just run toward each other, with a condescending intercut of identical earlier sequences (they really could be walking, but I suppose running looks nice in trailers). They kiss. Music plays. Did you notice that this was shot on 35mm and the colours were very warm? Did you see that the characters had cool clothes, which included many prints? Yay! You’ve seen an art film. Nice.
Perhaps that’s what the Mommy GF wants: to be able to just enjoy a film like this. Maybe I’m just growing out of it.