Film criticism isn’t a journalistic beat I’ve trod upon much in a 47-year career—my knowledge of celluloid history is passable, at least better than the comprehension of how a film is made—but like most Americans I watch a lot of movies, and like most writers, I have opinions about them. (Opinions are technically for sale, although in modern media that yields about a nickel on the dollar compared to the 1990s.). On Christmas Day, after a lively exchange of gifts that were under our magnificently eccentric tree, three of us went to the Charles Theater in Baltimore—my older son Nicky was laid low by a bug—looking forward to a matinee of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza.
I don’t always like the justifiably acclaimed director’s work—hated Magnolia (those falling frogs and Tom Cruise’s presence turned me off), dug Boogie Nights and was transfixed by There Will Be Blood—but in the hands of Anderson, how could a film set in late-1973 (when I was 18), with Nixon’s resignation less than a year away, shots of the gas lines, and plots centered on water beds (I’d forgotten all about them) and pinball machines go wrong? Mostly, it didn’t: I wasn’t immediately knocked out by Licorice Pizza, thinking it was a collection of sequences, some uproarious, some tedious, and Anderson’s 1973 framing was a little off to me—he was born in 1970—but then again, I didn’t grow up in Los Angeles. My wife Melissa (who did grow up in L.A.) and I gave it a solid B, while Booker clocked in with an unqualified rave.
But the next day, after my wife, Booker and I watched the controversial Don’t Look Up on Netflix (talk about a dearth of conversation topics in this always-weird week between Christmas and New Year’s Day), my opinion of Licorice Pizza ticked up a grade. Unlike Nicky, I thought director Adam McKay’s 2015 The Big Short was brilliant, a “dramedy” that nailed the 2008 financial crisis, and, also unlike Nicky, counted the minutes until the one-flat-and-obvious-joke-after-another Don’t Look Up was over. Call the film what you will—a comedy with an apocalyptic theme of indifference to climate change, a bitter send-up of Donald Trump and his handling of Covid, commentary about how dumb most Americans are—but it’s filled with stale anti-Trump jokes (Meryl Streep plays the narcissistic President Orlean, Jonah Hill (Jason Orlean) is the Donald Trump Jr. stand-in, prattling on about “cool shit” like gold and treating White House visitors like shit) that’ve saturated popular culture since 2015. Naturally, there’s a vapid faux Fox News Channel (although Cate Blanchett excels) to riff on, and the entirety of the Permanent Government, encased in its Beltway bubble is lampooned, not just Republicans.
When two scientists, Randall Mindy (a shlumpy Leonard DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (a winning Jennifer Lawrence) discover that a meteor is certain to destroy earth in six months, their warnings are at first ignored and then, after publicity from an impotent New York Times, instantly become part of today’s entertainment-obsessed society, with memes, commercials, an improbable affair between Blanchett and DiCaprio’s characters, MAGA-like climate change-deniers and an Elon Musk (played by Mark Rylance, with a creepy Mr. Rogers voice) figure to send out the good vibes. There was one scene I liked a lot: minutes before the comet’s arrival, a street kid, Yule (Timothee Chalamet) picked up by Lawrence’s character, says grace, impeccably and improbably, before the Mindy family’s final meal.
New York Times critic Manohla Dargis liked Don’t Look Up, although by her tone, sleepless nights lie ahead. She writes: “McKay has made ‘Don’t Look Up,’ a very angry, deeply anguished comedy freak out about how we are blowing it, hurtling toward oblivion. He’s sweetened the bummer setup with plenty of yuks—good, bad, indifferent—but if you weep, if may not be from laughing.” Although “science,” thanks to Anthony Fauci and his minions, gets a bad rap today, I’m not at all a climate change skeptic. But McKay’s ham-fisted, trite film won’t lead me to build a bunker.
And what is it with the insomnia among Times columnists (and no doubt reporters, but not the finance department)? Last month I noted the, as Dargis would say, “deeply anguished” words of Michelle Goldberg, who lives in Brooklyn, but lay awake having palpitations over typical political chicanery in Wisconsin. Perhaps the Times can lay off another sub-editor and use that money to address the Insomnia Plague affecting bread-and-butter “opinion influencers.”
Anderson doesn’t wander into apocalypse territory in Licorice Pizza—although at the time doomsayers claimed that overpopulation in the United States would kill the country, and “smog alerts” punctuated every weather forecast—aiming instead for a breezy story centering around Gary Valentine (a superb debut by Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman), a tremendously charismatic 15-year-old who has a crush on 25-year-old Alana Kane (also an excellent turn by Alana Haim), who, for whatever reasons, takes the rat-a-tat-tat bait that Valentine throws out and goes along with his one-a-week entrepreneurial plans. Bradley Cooper is a hilarious as a caricature of actor Jon Peters, snorting bags of cocaine and bragging about all the “tail” he’s had. Sean Penn’s 10-minute interlude as a way-past-prime William Holden doesn’t work, and I’m getting a bit sick of seeing Tom Waits in movies.
It’s Hoffman and Haim’s film, as the viewer follows them around Los Angeles (Gary Valentine never worries about school, I guess because he lives in a company town and diplomas are for kids in a less-rarefied environment). Some scolds have criticized Anderson for presenting the (mostly chaste) relationship between an adult woman and teenage boy, but I think that’s a cultural hot button of today, and not 1973. No reasonable person favors adult-teen exploitation, whether in school, churches or the Boy Scouts, but that’s not what’s happening in Licorice Pizza. I recall as a 17-year-old in my senior year of high school in Lawrence, NJ (I lived there for one year after my family moved from Long Island) that I hung out with an English teacher, who must’ve been 26 or so. In the spring of ’73, I often drove to her home in the hippie bastion of New Hope, PA—about a half-hour away—and we’d traipse down the main street that was filled with kiosks, outside music and cool food. It was innocent, as we’d talk about books and music, and a lot more fun than making friends with the morons at the high school.
Anderson’s also taking heat for one of his characters, a restaurant owner, speaking in fractured Japanese to a partner, which I found pretty funny. It’s 1973—and remember that the beloved Bonanza had a man servant called Hop Sing—and there were more pressing concerns. Like the “Constitutional crisis” that Nixon was causing and the predictions of a coup if he was forced from office. I’ve no idea if Anderson was thinking about that in making his jaunty Licorice Pizza romp, but probably not.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955