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Explainer: What was the point of 'Licorice Pizza'

The recent offering from director Paul Thomas Anderson is up for an Oscar, but the question for some is "why?"

CALIFORNIA, USA — The latest offering from director Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t likely to take home the Oscar this year, but it has still managed to endear itself to moviegoers and baffle a few others at the same time.

Right from the start, this coming of age movie kicks off with the main characters meeting, but the viewers don’t know who they are, where they are or what their relationship is. Eventually, the viewers learn that one is a 15-year-old student, the other is a 25-year-old photographer and that there is a romance element set up between the two. It arguably leaves the viewer even more confused than when the movie began.

Those viewers are definitely not alone. A simple search on Google for the movie, yields two stand out questions in the “People also ask” section: “What was the point of ‘Licorice Pizza?’” and “Why is ‘Licorice Pizza’ rated so high?” It has a 91% score on Rotten Tomatoes with critics, but a 65% audience score.

To find out what’s going on with the Oscar nominee, ABC10 reached out to movie review website Scene-Stealers.com and their editor-in-chief Eric Melin.

“You're not the first person I've defended this film towards,” Melin said.

Here's what to know about the film.

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The Director

Getting a better understanding of “Licorice Pizza” and its appeal might begin with a better understanding of the director, Paul Thomas Anderson.

Some people might know him for the film “Boogie Nights,” a movie starring Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg set in the 1970s world of pornography. It’s a movie about the porn industry that Melin says takes itself seriously, gets emotional and gets people to care about the characters.

“I guess what I'm trying to say is Paul Thomas Anderson, he makes movies that don't fit into the mold about subjects that you wouldn't normally do.”

When it comes to his direction with Licorice Pizza, it’s a coming of age film with adrift characters who are trying to find their way through life.

“The main character (portrayed by) Cooper Hoffman is a kid who has no qualifications to be a waterbed salesman. He has no qualifications to jump into the different businesses that he does and succeed at them. It's just a city, it's a time and a place. It's an era when people in California just thought anything was possible, and sometimes they would just go for it,” Melin said.

The "Alana Kane" character, portrayed by Alana Haim, is adrift in a way most moviegoers are familiar with.

“You have people like Alana Haim's character, who don't know what they want to do with their life, and they're just drifting from thing to thing to thing. And it's just kind of an aimless kind of exploration of that period in time,” Melin said.

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OK. So what was the point?

 “When you say this is a coming-of-age film, that's probably the very thing he (Paul Thomas Anderson) was trying to avoid when he made this movie," Melin said. "I think if you look at how he carried it out… people are coming away from it, and they're like, ‘I've seen coming of age films before, but this one just doesn't make any sense,’ right?”

After the strange start to the movie, it takes off on a series of vignettes where the two characters find themselves stumbling into Hollywood, the waterbed business, and politics as their relationship grows and they eventually fall in love.

When the movie ends, there’s no big wrap up and things that were hazy earlier on might still be hazy at the end. Even with the humor in the movie, there’s a number of comedy moments that could at best be described as intentionally uncomfortable, or “are we supposed to laugh at this”-type moments.

“There's just a lot of things that don't make sense and aren't explained, and you just have to kind of go with it," Melin said. "And slowly, I think what people who love the film, like myself, find is that they just have fallen in love with the characters. And so it doesn't matter that we're not getting a hard explanation about why this is happening or why something is the bigger picture or why something is going on. We accept that it's happening.”

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Why was this nominated for Best Picture?

Compared to the epic artistry and scale of “West Side Story” and the prestige of other nominees like “Belfast,” “Licorice Pizza” is a curious addition to the Best Picture nominees, even to those who like it.

“It's one of my favorite coming-of-age movies of all time. It's a great coming-of-age story told in a way that we've never seen before,” said ABC10 entertainment reporter Mark S. Allen. “Do I think it'll win? No. Frankly, I'm shocked that it made it into the Best Picture nomination. But that's the win. That's about as far as it's going to get.”

There’s very little star power in the movie, since lead actors Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim have never had a single movie credit to their name prior to this film. That flies in contrast to movies led by Will Smith in "King Richard" and the star-studded "Don't Look Up."

It begs the question as to how it got nominated. 

“The first thing is that Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood, and although many of the people in this film are not named or have fictitious names, it's definitely taking place in the 70s at a certain time in Hollywood. It's really evocative of this big change, this kind of sea change, in movies, and this new freedom that was opening up. And I think the movie really expresses that,” Melin said.

The director himself is another factor. Paul Thomas Anderson scored nominations in various categories in 1998, 2000, 2008, 2015 and 2018, as well. "Licorice Pizza" is his third Best Picture nomination and 11th nomination across the categories, but he's yet to take home a win.

“He's just very, very respected at this point, and he's long overdue for winning an Oscar. ‘Licorice Pizza’ doesn't fall into that message-movie category or important movie category or whatever. I think people just loved it, and they said, even though it's not an Oscar-type film, it's Paul Thomas Anderson...we're going to nominate it," Melin said. "So it's actually kind of fun and refreshing to see a film like this in this category.”

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