Decoding “Licorice Pizza” (With an Epilogue)

Forewarning: after the jump, I will be diving into almost every significant start-to-finish plot point in this film.

One way you know a movie is very special is if you can’t stop thinking about it weeks after you’ve seen it. And no 2021 release gave me that feeling as much as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza.

I went in inclined to like it. Anderson is one of a select few directors whose name on a project guarantees it’s a must-see for me. (Others on this list are Greta Gerwig, Steven Spielberg most of the time, and Quentin Tarantino.)

But during my watch, I kept going “WHAT?” time after time, not the incredulous “whats” I get when watching a nonsensical mess like The Rise of Skywalker but the “whats” of overwhelmed surprise as character beats and details kept emerging out of Anderson’s richly atmospheric recreation of the San Fernando Valley in 1973. Despite its brightness and humor, it’s not the easiest movie to get into. There isn’t a plot as much as there is a series of frequently outrageous situations which our characters get into and out of, pausing only for a brief rest, if that, before the next one. And the dialogue is less a means to advance the action and more a succession of screwball banter between the two leads, posturing, obscenity, and incredulous reaction.

When I walked out of the Music Box, I had no idea what the hell I’d seen but I also knew that whatever it was, I’d strongly, deeply connected with it.

I kept dwelling on the movie and playing its key moments back, over and over, and then, from his review in Bright Wall/Dark Room, Ethan Warren wrote this sentence that made me stop in my tracks.

“Anderson has for the first time managed to produce a film distinguished not merely by his characteristic fascination with the world but by a deep love for it.”

That’s the key. LOVE. And that insight is the foundation for what you’re about to read, and why I think Licorice Pizza, while not Anderson’s best film (in addition to a few other problems I’ll write about, there’s a bit of slack in the picture, a slack I think emerges from Anderson’s deep love of the story, that isn’t present in Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, and Phantom Thread), is his most emotionally resonant and moving, and the perfect culmination of this phase of his career.

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