Have we fallen victim to Marvel syndrome, or was “Licorice Pizza” as bad as reviews report?

Grace Whitaker , Web Editor

To say Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film “Licorice Pizza” has mixed reviews would be an understatement. The film received almost an equal amount of one-star reviews as there are five according to Google’s audience ratings, however critics are pretty firmly convinced that the movie was a hit. It earned a 91 on rotten tomatoes, a 90 on metacritic and a 5/5 from Empire, while simultaneously disappointing so much that one Google user, Heidi Walker, called it a “primary school drama production that was just well funded.” So what has viewers so torn over this unconventional romantic comedy?

Starring Alana Haim of the rock band HAIM as Alana Kane and Cooper Hoffman, son of late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as Gary Valentine, “Licorice Pizza” follows the two main characters through adventures of their adolescence in the San Francisco bay area. Set in 1973, the movie definitely displays the very different standards of the time period, most notably the ten year age gap between 25-year-old Alana and 15-year-old Gary, as well as secondary love interest Lance. There is no strict plot; the movie is more of a progression of events than it is your typical plot mountain, which made it hard to watch the first time through. I found myself more focused on what could happen next, and I wasn’t able to take in the characters and director’s choices very well.

The film mentions, but doesn’t focus on the age gap. In fact, it barely acknowledges the gap at all, which is what most viewers have a hard time ignoring. While watching, I even found myself forgetting about the literal pedophilia and rooting for the two to get together. This is where licorice pizza strays from the typical and easily digestible story that the common moviegoer is used to. Alana and Gary’s relationship is supposed to make you a little uncomfortable, reveal something about Alana’s character and show the kind of person that she is regardless of whether it is ethically and morally wrong, however the film also makes some racially insensitive jokes and plays largely into offensive stereotypes of the LGBTQ community. I understand that Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to do something edgy with this film, maybe trying to find humor in the exaggeration of the stereotypes, but it just didn’t come off that way. The jokes, if you can call them that, made most people in the theater wildly uncomfortable. I remember looking around the theater after the first racist comment and seeing the others doing the same thing, almost trying to gauge how we should react because it was so difficult to tell if we were expected to laugh at the terribly offensive jokes.

With the influx of neatly packaged Netflix originals and predictable superhero movies, the average viewer is accustomed to a traditionally good protagonist working to better the situation they’re in, something movie buffs are calling Marvel syndrome because of the franchise’s predictable storylines. However, the main character Alana was kind of insufferable. She was whiny, manipulative and constantly making the wrong decision, but that alone shouldn’t give the film a bad review. Alana Haim’s acting was incredible, especially for this being her first film. She told the story of a girl struggling with her self-worth, desperate for attention and doing what she thought was the right thing. While this protagonist’s story didn’t make it a feel-good movie, it can still be enjoyed for the story it tells.

Ultimately, this is an indie film that made its way into mainstream discussion, so it is not a movie you can just toss on and half pay attention to. Alana and Gary’s story is complex. Every interaction with the other characters reveals something about the two, and it takes real attention to detail to understand those motivations. Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t make anything explicitly clear for the audience, including the humor, but he effectively tells the story of a young woman struggling to grow up. A movie doesn’t need to be light and quippy to be good.