Why Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Licorice Pizza' Is Being Slammed Online

The film Licorice Pizza, which has received four Golden Globe nominations including Best Picture - Musical/Comedy, has been blasted by social media users ahead of its general release on Christmas Day.

Some users have slammed the film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, which is set in the 1970s, for "showing racism" without challenging or criticizing it.

According to the official plot summary, the film follows the story of Alana Kane (played by Alana Haim of the rock band Haim) and Gary Valentine (played by Cooper Hoffman, the son of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman) "growing up, running around and falling in love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973."

Why Is 'Licorice Pizza' Receiving Backlash on Social Media?

Several social media users referred to a scene involving a white male restaurant owner (played by John Michael Higgins) speaking to his on-screen Japanese wife with a fake Asian accent. The man later appears with another Japanese woman, who is his new wife, and attempts the same fake accent gag.

Anita Sarkeesian, an Armenian and Iraqi filmmaker, author and media critic, tweeted Monday: "After you watch Licorice Pizza please have a conversation with your friends about how just showing racism isn't a critique of racism. It is actually doing racism." The post had over 500 likes at the time of reporting.

Sarkeesian explained her critique of the film in a lengthy Twitter thread highlighting different points including: "Licorice Pizza is set in the 70s and therefore one could argue it is presenting dominant attitudes of the time but that in and of itself is not enough to justify its existence in perpetuating racist attitudes to modern viewers today, we are not beyond anti-Asian racism in 2021."

Claiming "there is also anti-semitism in the film," Sarkeesian noted the possibility that the intention of the film may have been "to show how blasé the dominant culture was at the time."

But the user added it is "irresponsible to just throw that in as an aside without actually signaling that this is both currently AND was always bad."

Jourdain Searles, a comedian, writer and critic, wrote: "the asian jokes in licorice pizza don't work" and "you can defend the movie while acknowledging that fact."

Searles explained: "it does no good to pretend those moments work when they don't. sometimes you love a movie and it has something f***ed up in it. that's normal. be honest," in the same tweet. The post had over 2,800 likes at the time of reporting.

TikTok user @hugeasmammoth.films shared a video post back in late November after catching an early screening of the film, explaining why the film made the user "uncomfortable as f***, as someone who's been mocked for my accent, being Asian, among other things."

"That one subplot in the film involving a Japanese restaurant made me hella uncomfortable and caught me off guard. As soon as that scene happened, that was all I could think about and because of that, I did not enjoy the film. And seeing most of the theater erupt in laughter and clap, my heart sank," the user said.

TikTok user @somewhere_in_june claimed the film was "super racist," in a video post in early December after watching a portion of the film at an early screening.

The user said: "Every time there is an Asian character in the scene, there's either someone doing an Asian accent or making a joke about how disposable Asian women are or just generally mocking specifically Japanese culture."

The viewer also said she was "shocked that more people aren't talking about the fact that this movie is talking about a grown woman grooming a child. Even if they don't consummate that relationship, it's inappropriate."

The film sees Gary, a teenager who has a "massive crush" on Alana, make a move on her. Alana entertains the idea of a first "date" and the pair form an "unlikely relationship," according to a review by Discussing Film.

But Alana "knows that they can't be anything more than just friends but can't deny the emotional crutch she finds in him," the review said.

Noting the film appeared to be "a coming age of romance, very character heavy kind of movie," the aforementioned TikTok user @somewhere_in_june said said the plot "failed to emphasize that the main character is 25 and her friend/love interest/other main character is 15...the movie does not hide that...if anything, it's kind of a cute quirky detail. We're not calling it what it is, which is preying on a child."

The user said they walked out of the screening "when Alana flashed Gary," noting "that's assault."

Acknowledging that some people may say "that's how the 1970s were," the user explained "we saw the clothes, we saw the cars, we saw the music...we knew it was the 1970s. You did not need to graphically display racist behavior and pedophilic behavior for me to understand the time period."

Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist, told NBC News in late November there is no pushback against the character played by Higgins.

Yuen, who at the time had not seen the film, said: "It's irresponsible to use racism against Asians as a running gag,"

The sociologist said the plot is "not even about Asians or race, and what it does is normalize this violence, this casual anti-Asian racism," explaining this was especially "concerning" given the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to newly corrected data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released this October, anti-Asian hate crimes increased over 73 percent in 2020.

What Has Paul Thomas Anderson Said About The Film?

Describing the limitations in the relationship between Alana and Gary, Anderson said: "It's only romantic in their flirtations; it's not romantic in any consummation of things. That would be inappropriate. You can tell there's an incredible attraction between them, but there's a line that can't be crossed," the director/writer told Variety.

In an interview with The New York Times back in late November, Anderson said the romance between Alana and Gary isn't provocative, despite the age gap.

However, when the Times interviewer described the aforementioned Asian gag in the film as a provocative element, Anderson said: "Well, that's different.

"I think it would be a mistake to tell a period film through the eyes of 2021. You can't have a crystal ball, you have to be honest to that time. Not that it wouldn't happen right now, by the way," he added.

Noting his real-life experiences witnessing racism against Asians within his own family, Anderson explained that he doesn't agree with the offensive gag necessarily, but does see it necessary to include the ugly portions of his memory relating to race and class.

"My mother-in-law's Japanese and my father-in-law is white, so seeing people speak English to her with a Japanese accent is something that happens all the time," Anderson said. "I don't think they even know they're doing it."

Newsweek has contacted the representatives for Anderson, the film's production company and the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) for comment.

Paul Thomas Anderson at a press conference.
Paul Thomas Anderson seen at a press conference for the 2018 Texas Film Awards in Austin, Texas in March 2018. Tim Mosenfelder/FilmMagic