“Licorice Pizza” is a coming-of-age film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Though it is a fictional drama, it is heavily inspired by real-life people who were integral parts of the director’s life. The film also serves as a recollection of instances, hearsay, and sometimes directly witnessed by the director, from the Hollywood of the 70s. The character of Gary Valentine, portrayed by Cooper Hoffman, was inspired by the director’s friend Gary Goetzman. Hoffman’s father, Philip Seymour Hoffman, had a close relationship with Paul Anderson, being cast by the latter in his debut venture, “Hard Eight.” Bradley Cooper plays the controversial Jon Peters, another real-life figure who was a hairdresser turned producer and made headlines for his 12-year-long relationship with actress Barbra Streisand. The 1976 remake of the film “A Star is Born” was one of the first films that Jon Peters co-produced that had Barbra Streisand in the titular role.
Sean Penn’s character, Jack Holden, is based on the life of “The Bridges at Toko Ri” actor William Holden. Paul Anderson had made a personal choice to tweak the name slightly.
Alan Haim, an American musician who plays Alana Kane in the film, has collaborated with Paul Anderson earlier, where the latter has directed many of her music videos. Joel Wachs, an LA city councilman, played by Benny Safdie, was closeted for the longest period of time before he came out in 1999.
The strong production design of “Licorice Pizza” aids the narrative in transporting you to the 70s as smoothly as possible. Many times, we see that there is a kind of artificiality in the look and feel, where the creators overemphasize and exaggerate certain aspects. It leads to disparate levels of believability, where at one moment, you are totally invested in the proceedings, but something conspicuous catches your attention, and you stop interacting with the story on a subconscious level.
“Licorice Pizza” is backed by strong insights and intricate character details that make it extremely close to reality. The subjects of the film and their stories are neither treated in a burlesque manner nor overstated at any point in time. There is a distinct warmth that you feel when you watch a well-made coming-of-age film. “Licorice Pizza” stays away from treacly sentimentality, which is its biggest strength.
Let’s look at the intricacies of the characters of “Licorice Pizza” and try to understand their personality in depth.
Alana, a 25-year old girl, hailing from a Jewish family, had created this image of a perfect life in her mind. She was aware of her age and what she was supposed to do to act her age. Many times, she finds her inspirations in complete contrast to what she ends up doing, because her actions are always driven by that image and not by what she really wants. She scorns herself for being that person who takes a diversion every single time but always gets back to the same old road that she tried to abandon so strategically. There is a sense of security that Alana feels when she is with older men. She does not necessarily enjoy it, often gets disappointed when things do not turn out to be as she had expected, but she still never stops getting allured by it.
Throughout, I felt that she was never as attracted to the older men in her life per se, as compared to the idea of being with someone of a particular social and financial status. It doesn’t mean that she was going after the money, but it was easier for her to imagine herself as a part of the already created establishment rather than think about being with someone who was trying to build it from scratch. As soon as she met any man, she had this habit of losing out on her identity or a part of it, never stating what she wanted or aspired to, but just trying to complement the actions of the other person.
There were certain attributes and sensibilities that she was looking for in a man. This, too, corresponded to her preconceived notion of what her life should be. These attributes were in complete contrast to what Gary possessed. With Gary, Alana never felt a sense of security that she was chasing subconsciously. She was looking for this big shadow to tag along. She was also searching for this stability that she thought couldn’t be achieved with a facetious person.
Gary also lacked the socio-political know-how as compared to the men Alana was going out with. Though Gary did have an entrepreneurial spirit, his business ideas, from a waterbed to a pinball center, which he called Bernie’s Pinball Palace, had an austere playfulness and naivety about them. When Alana starts working as a volunteer for Joel Wachs, she gets a feeling that she is catering to a bigger scheme of things. That’s when Gary comes up with the idea of a pinball arcade, which Alana finds highly trifling as compared to her work, where she was trying to bring about a change.
Alana’s strategic mind was often at odds with her intuition. She liked being associated with a guy like Joel Wachs or William Holden; that made her feel that she was among the big players, and becoming a part of their lives fascinated Alana beyond measure. She entertains William Holden even though she doesn’t understand the reference of most of the things he says. She becomes so restless as soon as Joel Wachs calls her for a drink, which she believes to be a romantic offer, that she is ready to jilt any other person, even if she feels inclined towards him.
Gary, a 15-year old entrepreneur, and actor, was smitten by Alana the moment he saw her. He goes back to his home and tells his younger brother that he had met the girl with whom he would eventually get married. The conflict arises when Alana does not consider him as someone with whom she could fall in love. It was a convoluted situation where it was not like Alana did not have a good time with him, but criticized him for his simple, unsophisticated, and innocent perspective. Gary never felt that he was a bit too young for Alana. There is sexual tension between the two, but Gary is not a sleazeball like the other men who are just with her because of physical attraction. Alana goes out with other people and is frequently unconcerned about Gary’s feelings. He may be jealous, but he is never envious of the other guys. Yes, he does try to compete but still holds on to his behavior as he knows that what he has to offer, nobody can. He orders Martinis when he sees Jack Holden ordering one while he is sitting with Alana at the opposite table in the restaurant. He feels a pang when he sees Alana hanging out with a co-actor, whom she met through him. But Gary never crossed the line. He knew that she was free to do what she felt like, even if he didn’t like it. He waited patiently, and deep down, he had a firm belief that no matter what happened, she would eventually see his little idiosyncrasies.
Gary does feel agitated when, even after his continuous efforts, Alana does not prefer to be with him, though she does end up spending her majority time with him. At times, he too loses it and asks her what her rationale is behind the demarcation. He knows he is going to make it big one day, and he wants Alana to be a part of it. Unlike other men in her life who were there in her life because they fell prey to their concupiscence, Gary wanted her to make a mark for herself. He wanted to give her the opportunity to create something on her own, rather than just lose out on her identity and be a trophy wife.
Gary made a lot of counterarguments but never put his case forward directly. Either his expectations and desires were clad in humor, which diluted the seriousness, or his actions were so covert that a lot was left for the other person to decipher. It could have worked for someone who knew what they wanted or didn’t have a bias against his age. But here, Alana was confused herself, and the camouflaged actions of Gary didn’t serve the purpose. Maybe Gary’s subtly was seen as him being indecisive, lacking control and being naive.
Many times, they both were at different vibrations and failed to see through each other’s emotions.
While on the truck with Jon Peters, Gary was intimidated by him but, at the same time, was looking for an opportunity to take revenge. When Alana drives the truck in reverse, and they escape, Gary shows a child-like enthusiasm for the mission being accomplished. On the other hand, Alana is in a totally convoluted headspace as Jon Peters made a sexual advancement, which she didn’t expect and found herself to be a little uncomfortable also but nonetheless she does not resist it and finds herself to be rather stupefied, unable to process what had just happened.
‘Licorice Pizza’ Ending Explained: Why Did Alana Choose Gary In The End?
The one characteristic that was common among all the men that Alana was with or was inclined to be with was that they could not rein in their concupiscence and control their sexual cravings, apart from Joel Wachs, who was just using her to conceal his secrets that had the potential to hurt his political interests.
At the beginning of “Licorice Pizza,” we see that the photographer spanks Alana as she passes him. When hanging out with Jack Holden, it was evident that they did not have anything in common. Jack Holden, who referred to her as “Rainbow,” tells Alana how much she resembles his co-star, Grace Kelly, and he uses insincere flattery to win her over. He didn’t even know what kind of person she was, and neither was he interested in knowing. While doing a stunt, Jack speeds on his motorbike, not even realizing that Alana had fallen off it. She was flattered as he was this big movie star who had asked her out and who was giving her an opportunity to act alongside him, but little did she realize how much she would have to compromise on her worth.
Jon Peters is shown as a furious and rather frenzied character who shows strains of compulsive sexual behavior. Things might get a bit uncomfortable for his female counterparts, but that does not even for a second make him unhinged. He is dominant and often bullish in his approach.
Alana asks her sister if it is normal to hang out with boys who are almost 10 years younger than her, but Paul Anderson somehow finds ways to make her go back to Gary even after she thinks that it is a bit weird.
Even until the end of “Licorice Pizza,” Alana is in doubt about her relationship with Gary. But a subtle incident leaves behind a major impact on her decision that even clears the air of doubt too. While on a dinner with councilman Joel Wachs, she realizes that with all the men she had been with so far, it was never about her, instead of about them, their desires, their wants, and their public image. But Gary was the only person who never pretended that he cared because, in reality, he actually did.
Alana gets an epiphany of sorts when she finds out Joel Wachs was just calling her to avoid the suspicion that was being raised about him being a gay person. She has a brief conversation with Mathew, Wach’s lover, and for the first time, she lifts the veil and gets clarity. She is done with accommodating the idea of that perfect life and those feigned emotions because no matter how hard she tried, she failed to fit into it. She stops being pretentious and, for the first time, considers Gary as somebody with whom she could be herself.
Gary, too realizes that he was done beating around the bush and that he needs to tell Alana how much she means to him. Finally, they meet, removing the ambiguity that smogged their relationship and welcoming each other in their respective lives for a happily ever after, maybe.
“Licorice Pizza” leaves you with a cozy and warm feeling that might be said to be a tad bit optimistic but never deceives you by showing the characters in an idealistic light or devoid of any flaws.