starring Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits
written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
starring Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd, Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace
written by Gil Kenan & Jason Reitman
directed by Jason Reitman
by Walter Chaw In Paul Thomas Anderson's Licorice Pizza, John Michael Higgins plays real-life restaurateur Jerry Frick, proprietor of "The Mikado." Frick is married to a severe and disapproving Japanese woman (Yumi Mizui) who apparently doesn't speak any English, although she seems to understand it fluently. She certainly understands her husband, who doesn't speak Japanese but does speak English, when he's speaking it to her, in a cartoonish Asian accent. This is perhaps a commentary on how backwards everyone was in 1973, but Licorice Pizza is not otherwise a satire, so what the fuck is going on here? Is PTA reserving the barbed edge of his keen sociological blade exclusively to excavate anti-Asian depictions in film and nowhere else? Based on Hong Chau's brief but memorable turn in Inherent Vice as a tough hooker (oops) who tries to warn the idiot hero of danger, there's reason to hope. Yet if Frick is meant to be a satire of how white men are racist towards Asians in general and Asian women in particular... How? Just by the fact of him? In his second scene, he shows up with a different wife (Megumi Anjo), explaining how his first wife has left him and this is the new Mrs. Frick. The joke is either that Frick is a fetishist, or that all Asians look alike.
Here's a third option: maybe the joke is that both of his wives are stentorian ninnies who have married a man who does not speak their language and, since they understand English, must know that he's affecting an accent to speak to them. The joke is that Asian women are just like this. Got it. There will be a lot of rearguard action amongst PTA's defenders that what this is, actually, is incisive cultural critique suggesting that Asian women who marry white men are complicit in their subjugation and humiliation and that anyone upset about it should relax. Of course Frick is the buffoon, exploiting Asian women--his kink--as a means of lending legitimacy to his business. The problem isn't that Frick is a fucking cunt, it's that the two Mrs. Fricks are asked to be nothing more than Mr. Yunioshis. The first Mrs. Frick expresses that she doesn't like some ad copy that describes the Mikado's waitresses as little Japanese dolls in colourful kimonos. The next Mrs. Frick looks very cross indeed at the prospect of putting up table tents in their restaurant. They're the boss, the dragon lady. If you're looking for absolution in the fact that the first Mrs. Frick leaves Mr. Frick, I'm going to say that it's not sufficient to redeem these decisions. The easy route is to compare the sins of Licorice Pizza to the Bruce Lee sequence in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, though there's no comparison at all.
I'm the furthest thing from surprised--but that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt when it shows up where you least expect it. I am a huge fan of Anderson's work. More than good, I think it's important. More than important, I think it's art. What I'm sure was a hilarious anecdote shared by a friend that Anderson transcribed faithfully into his text lands as a devastating reminder of exactly how perpetually foreign Asians are considered in this society. Defenders of this garbage, I'll ask you the same Cloud Atlas question: if it's acceptable, why didn't you do it with any Black characters? (Well, there aren't any, for starters, but you take my meaning.) Here's the thing, it shows up in a movie by Paul Thomas Anderson--a filmmaker I adore--and even mentioning it gets most of your allies exchanging glances behind your back. There goes the mouthy chink, overreacting again.
Fine. Let's talk about how a 25-year-old woman should not be kissing a 15-year-old boy and telling him that she loves him. Bill Maher mused once about how this was a great deal for Vili Fualuaa and how he would've loved it if one of his teachers had taken him to bed when he was in high school. Again, all good now when PTA does it, right? If I'm not supposed to be upset about the racism, am I not supposed to be upset about the grooming and statutory implications of its love story, either? Guess I have a lot of buttons. 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a high-school lothario who puts the moves on sexually-harassed photographer's assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim) because she just can't get enough of being sexually harassed at work. No, really, that's why she shows up later at Gary's hangout, where he orders them two Cokes. He's got a soupçon of fame that's fading fast along with his baby fat, so he branches out into multiple side-hustles like selling waterbeds and opening a pinball parlour. As a minor. The details don't matter. World events are meanwhile happening in the background, making this like a Faulkner short story--a whole anthology of them--where things like the OPEC oil embargo, the Nixon Presidency, and the United States on the verge of collectively losing whatever innocence about itself it once had foreground the growing pains of young Gary Valentine as he falls in love with Alana Kane.
Gary has a little brother; Alana has two sisters played by Alana Haim's two sisters. In the real world, the three Haims form a popular rock band that unironically plays nostalgic roots contemporary rock, though you could say that three young Jewish women playing songs The Eagles would have played in 1973 is fraught with irony and weight. People who have made an altar of PTA will have things to write monographs about for years to come; congratulations. The Haims' parents play the Kanes' parents, and there's a scene where a boyfriend (the magnificent Skyler Gisondo) declines to give a blessing to the bread because he's now an atheist. There's another scene at a "Teen Expo" where a long tracking shot pours lovingly through every cultural relic that would have had me swooning had I not still been thinking about how white people think talking like an Asian person is hilarious and how Asian women, when they're not busy loving you long time, are severe nags and scolds who grip the leashes of their loved ones tight in their carefully-manicured talons.
Licorice Pizza follows the adventures of Gary and Alana as they bicker, run around in immaculately-lit, meticulously-replicated vintage California, feel jealous, deny they're meant to be together, and finally accept they're meant to be together. Midway through, there's a lengthy interlude with an inveterate Hollywood perv, "Jack" Holden (Sean Penn), who's goaded by an old chum (Tom Waits) into restaging a flaming-motorcycle stunt from one of Jack's movies on a golf course in the middle of the night. This is interesting for many reasons, one of which is that Bradley Cooper shows up later as legendary piece of shit blockbuster producer Jon Peters and Jon Peters is the one who wanted Sean Penn to play Superman in Kevin Smith's aborted Superman project after seeing Penn in Dead Man Walking, noting that Penn had "the eyes of a killer." Peters is a credited producer on Cooper's A Star is Born remake, which led to Cooper having to clarify that it was a contractual credit and Peters was never on set after several sexual-harassment allegations came out about Peters. Cooper plays Peters as a psychopath who sexually assaults Alana, but in a funny way. I never knew how funny PTA was until this movie.
I only mention this because Licorice Pizza is Inside Baseball starring the parents and children of famous people that will be fun to watch for the same people who nudge their date during the opening credits to tell them that PTA's "Ghoulardi Productions" is named after his dad, a late-night horror-movie host. It has wonderful moments that capture the twilit, winsome heartache of those summer nights when you sit for hours on the warm sidewalk with the girl you have a crush on, conspiring a way to innocently brush your leg against hers. You miss your chance and go off to a different college and never see her again, but you never forget her or that night, either--especially when the sun starts to turn the sky purple in the east. Licorice Pizza is like that now and again. At its best, it's like how all of Greg Mottola's Adventureland is like; at its worst, you're reminded of how painful casual racism is when it's used as a gag with not a point but a punchline. (It's not about the white guy; it's about his two wives. Get it clear in your head: It's satire if the women aren't also ridiculously offensive stereotypes.) I love the long scene where Alana and Gary are running towards each other from opposite ends of the screen and the city--like something out of Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang, for instance, another film that is like this except all the way through, because it somehow resists shitting the bed with a gag that is hateful and sadly unnecessary. When Gary and Alana finally come together, it's obviously reminiscent of Punch-Drunk Love's delirious, Harry Nilsson-scored reunion scene--except PTA takes the piss out of himself by having them collide and crumble in front of a Live and Let Die marquee.
Everyone will talk about how great Alana Haim is, and she's fine. Everyone will talk about how Cooper Hoffman reminds them of his dad Philip Seymour and is also great but maybe not as great as Haim. Whatever. Cooper is going to be a movie star, if he wants that--and one day we will say that Alana Haim was okay in Licorice Pizza. Everyone who's talking about this as a Richard Linklater-ish gem of a shaggy-dog hangout movie will contort themselves into pretzel shapes to find the surgical, Noël Coward-dry social commentary of a white man "talkee rike dis" in 2021 to a stern Asian businesswoman who "no spreekee Engrish." Which is it, James Agee? Shit like this gets Asian women killed. I guess that's one reason I don't think it's funny. Anyway, enjoy Licorice Pizza--or as my people would call it, "Ricolice Peeza." Ees goo' fo' you! Numba one, Joe!
Jason Reitman's Ghostbusters: Afterlife (hereafter Ghostbusters 4) geeks the same nostalgia button as Licorice Pizza for all it's worth, this time aiming at the younger Gen-X'ers raised on Ivan Reitman's intensely mediocre and obnoxious Ghost Busters and Richard Donner's unwatchable The Goonies, childhood relics around which have been built holy and unimpeachable shrines. Unlike The Goonies, however, Ghost Busters has, for whatever reason, attracted a sad gaggle of the worst human beings on the planet to its corner. It's Star Wars for frat boys and less organized bullies--a fantasy of empowerment with fascistic, misogynistic undercurrents, the better to bolster the fragile male cosplayer ego. With this fourth entry, Reitman loads up on the references to the first film similar to how The Force Awakens played on the warm memories of its target audience and their offspring. I like The Force Awakens, too. I think Ghostbusters 4 is not merely the best film of the quadrilogy, however low a bar that might be--I think it's doing exactly the same sort of pandering to one's grief over the kingdom of our memories as Anderson's picture and will be excoriated for it while the other is lauded. I'll offer that there is no substantive difference between dressing John C. Reilly up as Herman Munster in a meticulous re-creation of a boardwalk expo circa 1973, as PTA does, and a dramatic unveiling of the Ghostbusters station wagon, the Ecto-1, from beneath a tarp in some midwestern barn. They're equally cheap appeals to a kneejerk reflex, lazy and obvious. It doesn't mean it doesn't work, just as it doesn't mean one should get a medal for it.
Both Licorice Pizza and Ghostbusters 4 are about a potential love affair between a boy who's 15 and a girl in her 20s, and both feature breakout performances by a young actor--Hoffman in the former and Mckenna Grace in the latter. Grace's Phoebe, a science nerd who's perhaps on the spectrum, moves with her mother Callie (Carrie Coon) and brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) to idyllic Summerville, Oklahoma, whose name reminds me immediately of "Summerisle" from The Wicker Man--a place that looks very nice but turns out to be very not, especially if you're a good Christian soldier. Hints of the supernatural plague our heroes in Summerville, too, as Phoebe forms a fast friendship with Asian-American kid Podcast (Logan Kim) and gains a mentor in the form of summer-school teacher/seismologist Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd). Gary is in Summerville because he's curious as to why earthquakes regularly occur in this backwater that intersects with no known faultlines. Phoebe is there because her mom has walked out on her deadbeat dad and all they have left in the world is regret, debt, and the old homestead Callie's father, Egon Spengler (the late Harold Ramis, resurrected in CGI form here), has bequeathed her upon his untimely passing. No one in the town appears to know that Egon was one of the legendary "Ghost Busters" who (twice) freed New York from a pretty bad haunting. His family doesn't know, either, having been estranged from him since before the children were born. There will be complaints about the widespread amnesia that has caused everyone to forget a Godzilla-sized Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man once stomped Manhattan, and fair enough, but our collective ability as a society to completely forget gargantuan calamities doesn't seem all that unrealistic to me, I'm afraid, nor does the fact that rural Oklahoma exists in an entirely different reality.
Coon is incredible as a decent person left embittered by first her father's abandonment of her, then her husband's. Her frankness with potential suitor Gary ("I'm a dumpster fire") lands with no dignity left to lose. She's not asking for sympathy, she's providing fair warning that she's damaged goods to a person she likes. As is her habit, Coon owns every second she's on screen--which is not enough, alas, though she provides Jason Reitman's professed rationale for tackling this film--to wrestle with his own familial legacy as the son of Ghost Busters director Ivan--an honest emotional core. When offered condolences for her father's passing, Callie is cold ("You knew him better than I ever did," she says) and is bemused by everyone in town referring to him as just "the dirt farmer." She doesn't tell Phoebe how much Phoebe is like him, down to her mannerisms. In a surprisingly poignant moment, Phoebe discovers for herself an identical preference for the style of glasses Egon wore. Having felt the outcast her entire life, she asks her mother why she'd never told Phoebe that her "strangeness" had its roots in a man she'd never met. Callie registers Phoebe's pain with an entire range of complicated understanding at how her grievances may be damaging her children. Without this character and the actor playing her, Ghostbusters 4 would likely be everything its critics accuse it of being: empty fan-service in pursuit of quick cash and the approval of a small cabal of arrested trolls. The picture is ultimately too awkward and formula-bound to be great, but damned if it isn't breezy and heartfelt and, shockingly, not even a little bit smug until the finale, when the old guard shows up to make a crowd-pleasing spectacle of themselves.
The spring romance between Trevor and comely Lucky (Celeste O'Connor) is a dreadfully dull distraction that at least has the decency to end when the age gap is discovered and deemed unacceptable, while the shenanigans involving the inevitable release of all the ghosts Egon has stored away along with Gozer (Olivia Wilde) and the Gatekeeper/Keymaster are largely uninspired. (I did enjoy Gozer's imperious disinterest in Phoebe's attempts to distract her.) Rudd, for his part, uses his considerable charm to channel Mark Harmon's Freddy Shoop from Summer School. I kind of liked the mini-Stay-Pufts doing disgusting things to each other with giant shit-eating grins stretched across their faces; I kind of hated the pandering finale (even while feeling moved by it against my better judgment); and I was briefly touched by the appearance of the reanimated Egon before wishing the film had honoured its own rules and sucked him into a trap. Sacrifice, see? But no, there's cheap sentiment to be mined in the Spielberg tradition of "these cufflinks" and "beeee goooood." Still, Ghostbusters 4 is surprisingly substantive garbage that deals with both abandonment issues and autism in respectful, dare I say empathetic, ways, buoyed by performances from Coon and Grace that by themselves raise all boats. Podcast is sweetly atypical, smart, and not the butt of any jokes--and neither is Phoebe, come to think of it. What I'm saying is that Ghostbusters 4 is better than Licorice Pizza while largely attempting the same things, occasionally in the same ways. I'm as surprised as you are.