‘Licorice Pizza’ Gives Audiences the ‘Girl Saves Man-Child’ Formula With a Literal Child

From Boogie Nights being a satire on the pornographic industry to There Will Be Blood simultaneously exploring toxic masculinity and capitalism, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has always had an admirer in me. So, I was naturally tempted to try out the latest dish Anderson had cooked up – Licorice Pizza – only to be left disappointed.

Back in 2002, Anderson had directed a tragic romance called Punch Drunk Love. That may have been a better title for Licorice Pizza because that’s what the movie is.

The central romance in the movie is itself flawed. You see dreamy-eyed 15-year-old Gary Valentine staring at 25-year-old Alana at his high school. He wastes no time to initiate a cringe-inducing proclamation of affection and asks her out for dinner.

If Alana would have rejected Gary right there saying, “Listen, you’re a kid. I’m an adult” – the movie would have ended right there. However, Anderson had other plans.

This movie is supposed to be a nostalgic, heartwarming tale from the 1970s. Maybe, for Anderson, this decade was perfect for glamorising an unconventional romance like this. A woman kissing an underage boy. Ah, just “the poetic cinema” we want!

When Gary asks her out, Alana agrees but she does tell him to “not act creepy”. Gary does end up being creepy eventually, unhealthily obsessing over her body, and even getting possessive about her in front of others.

There’s literally a scene where Alana agrees to pose nude for a movie. This angers our adolescent hero. The testosterone has only started pumping in his body and it seems like Gary has just befriended Alana for her body. Alana even shows him her breasts in a fit of rage to which Gary just gapes in awe and asks, “Can I touch them?”. He gets a slap in response.

These scenes worked at the time for me as Anderson was showing me a man-child’s gaze (a literal child in this case) and how gullible he can be in his pursuit of love. There are moments in the movie where Alana just observes Gary and his male peers acting like the young and foolish high school kids that they are. She feels the age gap taking a mental toll on her and takes a mature detour until she ends up with… Gary?

All through the movie, I thought Anderson would end the movie with the boy and the woman finding their own pursuits upon realising the futility of their emotionless (and inappropriate) relationship. But no, here he goes full Imtiaz Ali-mode with the two literally running towards each other and falling in love.

Alana and Gary’s chemistry is rooted in the formula of the “manic pixie dream girl” (aka MPDG). To put it in simpler words, several romances involve an immature man pursuing a woman who seems to be absolutely “perfect” in his gaze. The point of an MPDG is to exist solely to give the male protagonist life lessons. The latter will absolutely pedastalise her and rely on her in his low moments. And then, the MPDG is more than often compelled to act like the mature one to console our hero who is delving into self-pity.

We have seen such cases with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Wake Up Sid and Imtiaz Ali movies such as Tamasha and Rockstar. The titular heroines in Annie Hall (by the notorious Woody Allen who ironically is linked to a highly concerning case of age gap) and 500 Days of Summer arguably fall in the MPDG category but at least, they end up leaving their relationships and pursuing their own goals. They either realise that their male partners were being toxic or their bond was simply not meant to be.

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In the case of Licorice Pizza, Gary is both petty and immature and their bond is simply not meant to be. I personally feel the movie would have worked better if the leads realised their own folly and parted ways. In the very final minutes, you can hear Alana say “I love you, Gary”. Just a few seconds later, Gary grabs her hand, walks in front of his peers and says “Let me introduce you to Mrs. Alana Valentine”.

The teenager is obviously as immature as ever. And yet he wins over Alana and they even share an uncomfortable kiss. Ultimately, Gary’s immaturity has no consequences. Despite all the flaws, the guy gets the girl. This outdated notion works in different ways, be it in an “angry young” film like Arjun Reddy or a “nostalgic” one like Licorice Pizza.

Even if there was some sense of genuine romance between the leads, I would have understood the point of all the melodrama. But here’s a woman who is being used by the screenwriter to just be the subject of fancy for one male character to another (Gary, a self-obsessed Sean Penn, and an extremely creepy Bradley Cooper). Meanwhile, the boy… well, he just wants to touch a woman’s breasts.

Featured image: MGM