This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Lauren Wilford’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
A warm tribute to a kind of relationship I feel like lots of us have stuffed way in the back of a mental drawer: the ill-advised crush turned briefly, oddly, achingly mutual, transmuted not into a romantic relationship but into an ambiguous, charged entanglement.
Alana's reluctant seduction by Gary in the first few scenes strikes me as incredibly psychologically realistic. She outlines a boundary upfront and continues verbally repeating it, but by her actions edges toward it out of curiosity. She's reflexively annoyed at first, but as she becomes more impressed by his gumption, the annoyance becomes more of an act. She's caustic in order to maintain plausible deniability, mostly to herself, about her interest in Gary. She's lightly thrilled by the attention, and mostly just interested that something is happening at all. Why does she show up for their "date"? In large part, I imagine, for the hell of it. To be the subject of interest of someone who interests you is one of the most interesting things there is. She decides to let something happen, even as nothing “happens."
A mutual inappropriate crush is propelled by an engine of flattery. If you are not "supposed" to be desired by someone who nevertheless desires you, you must, presumably, be desirable indeed. Being a forbidden crush object is a high-amperage emotional experience, and if two people can provide that for one another, they can generate enough voltage to power their lives on for a while.
The question of what each of them is to one another is always a live one. The early plot development of Alana serving as Gary’s legal chaperone is apt; it doesn’t really matter what they are to one another, so long as they are something. Gary is thrilled to have gotten her to agree to this; soon after, Alana is thrilled to be party to Gary’s performance in an official capacity. “I’m his chaperone,” Alana whispers, annoyingly, to no one. Later on, she’ll emphasize that they’re “business partners." The movie makes sure to have other people ask Gary and Alana about their relationship status several times, and the answer never matters—it’s that the question was provoked that counts.
The threats to Gary and Alana’s connection aren’t framed so much as threats to a relationship, but threats to their status as exclusive crush object—and thus their respective understandings of themselves as interesting and worthy. And maybe, in the end, that’s what lots of romantic jealousy is. It’s not about what they’re doing with someone else so much as about what that says about you.
After being impressed by Gary’s initial romantic pitch, Alana realizes that Gary is an enthusiastic pitch-man wherever he goes. A key threat to Alana’s understanding of the relationship comes from a friend she runs into in the bathroom of the Mikado restaurant. The friend is more familiar with Gary’s schtick than Alana is comfortable with; Alana has to confess that she’s working with Gary, who, she’s quick to observe, is “actually a great businessman.” The friend cuts Alana to the quick with a casual comment about Gary’s sexual proclivities. In this moment, Alana has to recast her experience with him; perhaps she’s not special to Gary at all, but just a ready mark. And she can’t confront Gary about it, because it would reveal that she cares.
Alana has her revenge in the Felliniesque Tail o’ the Cock sequence with Sean Penn, which is wonderful for several reasons—the lighting, the editing, the dance of eyes!—but no moment is better than the climax, in which Alana is unceremoniously flung from the back of Jack Holden’s motorcycle, and a Paul McCartney needle drop heralds the arrival of Gary as romantic savior. “Let Me Roll It” is an exquisite tonal match for the scene: a big satisfied grin of a song, the central guitar lick like a repeating nod of affirmation. It’s a dumbstruck love song with simplistic, childlike lyrics, heart on its sleeve and hands in its pockets at the same time: “You gave me something I understand / You gave me lovin’ in the palm of my hand / I can’t tell you how I feel / my heart is like a wheel / let me roll it to you.” This is, in the course of the movie, a kind of cathartic reunion for the non-couple, but they do very little at all—it’s enough to lay next to each other, content in the tacit admission of what’s really been going on here. All it is is two people who have been buzzingly, distractingly aware of one another’s attention in the midst of other things, finally basking in that awareness and that attention, for a moment.
I love, though, that we get to see some of Alana’s relationship with other men, because this makes clear that she hasn’t worked out how to deal with male attention broadly, and that Gary is only a part of that. She lives in an ambient atmosphere of objectification, as seen in the first scene with her Tiny Toes boss, or later with Jon Peters; how she feels about this is unclear. She responds to the romantic advances of aging star Jack Holden much the way she responds to Gary’s—flattered by the attention, she decides to let something happen out of curiosity. But she can eventually tell that Jack isn’t interested in her as a person (“Do you even remember what my real name is?”), which spoils it. Something similar happens with Joel Wachs, who provides a compelling adult alternative to Gary in the latter half of the film. Like Gary, he’s got a vision for his life, which appeals to her; better than Gary, it’s a wide-reaching, altruistic vision that makes Alana think bigger about her future. The idea that Wachs could be interested in her personally is enough to briefly, almost, turn her life around. But his attention, like Holden’s, proves to be instrumentalist, too. Running back into Gary’s arms is Alana returning to the person who actually made her feel special, even if imperfectly.
There are some things in common with Phantom Thread here. Both center on a relationship in which the terms are undefined, which gives things a possessive charge. (Compare Alma’s “I live here” scene with the princess of France to Alana’s bikini-clad confrontation with Gary’s same-age love interest: “Is she your girlfriend or something?” “No, she’s my manager. Does it seem like she is?” “Kind of!") Both films also feature a female character who gets sucked into the vortex of a talented male character’s business enterprise, mostly because she doesn’t have a lot else going on, which both empowers her and also, eventually, leads her to get edgy and defensive. Both films are about love as brinksmanship. And both films also feature a devastating mid-film humiliation scene for the female character (the asparagus scene in Phantom Thread; the opening night of Fat Bernie’s in Licorice Pizza).
The whole arc of scenes with Alana in that lilac bikini are an acutely observed rendering of feminine shame: wearing a daring outfit, and going from feeling really sexy to feeling completely pathetic over the course of some hours. Starting with those loving close-ups of Alana’s face as she receives Gary’s praise in the morning, followed by her subtle misgivings at having to manage a business in her underwear in the afternoon, and then watching her make a clown of herself at the afterparty, gyrating in front of a junior-high band, flinging herself at a random guy on the street, the day finally ending, bathetically, with her father's perfect “What the fuck!” It’s miserable and it’s genius, and a great example of how a director can use costuming to tell a story. Anderson is always great with subjectivity, and really lets us experience this stupid night WITH Alana, rather than making her the object of our scorn or pity. (I’m doing less writing about the filmmaking than I’d usually like, but that’s easier for me to do on a second watch, and I wanted to engage with the thematic stuff this time).
But overall, one of the big differences between Licorice Pizza and Phantom Thread (and indeed, between LP and most of the rest of Anderson’s catalogue) is the lack of tension, the lower stakes. PTA movies may be a little shaggy and weird, but they’re almost always tense, whatever else they are. There’s something different about Licorice Pizza, something looser and easier. Anderson is still carefully arranging the emotional notes in the scenes, but it’s as if the characters themselves know that this stuff isn’t life-or-death. These are just some things that happens sometimes, worth observing. In the Anderson catalogue, maybe the thing it most reminds me of is the flashback in Inherent Vice where Doc and Shasta never do find the dope.
This is a movie about someone who doesn’t have their emotional shit together, who hasn't figured out how to live in the adult world, and as such I think it’s compassionate and critical in the right measures. And actually, scratch that, because it makes it sound like I’m evaluating the movie based on whether it’s conveying an appropriate moral message. Rather, better, I think it’s an honest film. I think this stuff happens, often kind of like this, and you can see why. If you’re saying you can’t, I kind of think you’re lying.
Is it romantic? Is it a love story? Kind of. Structurally, it’s a romance, and there’s all that running. I have found it sort of disingenuous when people (including cast and crew!) have described the movie as about “friendship” or “connection,” or something; it seems very clear to me that it’s about attraction, but not about sexual attraction, per se. It’s much more about what infatuation represents, existentially. Infatuation is about wanting someone, about being pulled toward them like a magnet, but it’s also about your magnetic pull on them. Wanting to be wanted is a little adolescent, but it’s also quintessentially human, and it’s an itch most of us have found weird ways to scratch in this life at one point or another. At its worst, this kind of thing is self-involved. But at its best, infatuation is like the McCartney song; two people giving each other something, unable to verbally express their gratitude, rolling their wheel hearts to one another.