Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and in Europe, from the late 1920s to the late 1960s, the dramatic film “Oppenheimer” (based on the non-fiction book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer”) features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer invents the atomic bomb, which is used in Japan toward the end of World War II, but he struggles with the moral consequences of this invention.
Culture Audience: “Oppenheimer” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Christopher Nolan, the star headliners and history-based movies with a top-notch principal cast.
“Oppenheimer” has the words “awards bait” written all over it. This epic drama about atomic bomb inventor J. Robert Oppenheimer is crammed with showy performances from an all-star cast. The last third of the movie is the best and most meaningful section.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer” is based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2005 non-fiction book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” Oppenheimer was born in 1904 and died in 1967. This three-hour movie has a story that spans from the late 1920s to the late 1960s, with most of the story taking place in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s a very ambitious film that at times seems more interested in showing off how many famous cast members can be stuffed into quick-cutting scenes. The middle part of the movie tends to drag with some repetition, but the movie’s last hour is absolutely riveting.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, also known as Robert (played by Cillian Murphy, giving an award-worthy performance), is an intense and quietly brooding American theoretical physicist who is originally from New York, but he did his most significant work in remote areas of Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was tested. The top-secret research into making the atomic bomb was called the Manhattan Project. The movie shows that Robert had mixed feelings about this invention, even before it was actually built. He also worried about how this bomb could possibly start a competition among other countries (specifically, Russia, then known as the Soviet Union) to make an even more destructive bomb.
The first hour of “Oppenheimer” cuts in and out of scenes so quickly, it does a disservice to the story by preventing viewers from getting to know the main characters better. After a while, the movie’s first hour just becomes a parade of big-name actors portraying scientists and government officials who have various debates about the merits and morality of the atomic bomb. It all becomes a bit long-winded, although the visuals in the movie are often stunning. Also noteworthy is composer Ludwig Göransson’s stirring “Oppenheimer” musical score.
There are repetitive mentions of Robert always feeling like the white Anglos who dominate the U.S. government will never truly accept him because he’s Jewish. There’s some antisemitism depicted in the movie, but the biggest prejudices in “Oppenheimer” have to do with political alliances. The movie’s story is steeped in people’s obsession with finding out who’s a Communist (or Communist ally) and who is not. This “Red Scare” would eventually be the undoing of more than one person in the story.
The other real-life people portrayed in “Oppenheimer” include Leslie Groves Jr. (played by Matt Damon), the politically conservative officer of the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers and director of the Manhattan Project; Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr.), the founding commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission); and physicist Ernest Lawrence (played by Josh Hartnett), the extroverted inventor of the cyclotron, who befriends the more introverted Robert. Other real-life historical figures portrayed in “Oppenheimer” include Danish physicist Niels Bohr (played by Kenneth Branagh), a mutual admirer of Robert; hydrogen bomb inventor Edward Teller (played by Benny Safdie), an uneasy subordinate of Robert; and physicist Frank Oppenheimer (played by Dylan Arnold), Robert’s younger brother, who was recruited by Robert to work on the Manhattan Project.
And there’s more: Hans Bethe (played by Gustaf Skarsgård), the leader of the Manhattan Project’s theorist department; physicist/chemist Isidor Rabi (played by David Krumholtz), Robert’s longtime friend/advisor; Vannevar Bush (played by Matthew Modine), the leader of the Office of Scientific Research and Development; William Borden (played by David Dastmalchian), executive director of the U.S. Congress Joint Committee on Atomic Energy; and world-renowned scientist Albert Einstein (played by Tom Conti), who has a few contrived-looking scenes where he has private conversations with Robert.
And there’s even more: Jason Clarke as Roger Robb, special counsel to the Atomic Energy Commission; Macon Blair as Lloyd Garrison, Robert’s attorney; Rami Malek as physicist David Hill; Alden Ehrenreich as an unnamed U.S. Senate aide who works with Lewis Strauss; Casey Affleck as U.S. Army military intelligence officer Boris Pash; Dane DeHaan as civil engineer Kenneth Nichols. Also in the “Oppenheimer” cast are Tony Goldwyn as national security/defense government official Gordon Gray; Jack Quaid as physicist Richard Geynman; Josh Peck as physicist Kenneth Bainbridge; Alex Wolff as physicist Luiz Alvarez; and James Remar as U.S. government official Henry Stimson. Even with a cast packed with well-known actors, most of the supporting actors who are in the movie for less than 10 minutes each don’t have much to do but say their lines while sitting or standing in offices.
One of the best scenes in the movie is when Robert has a tension-filled meeting in 1945, with U.S. president Harry Truman (played Gary Oldman), who dismisses Robert’s concerns about the atomic bomb being a trigger for other countries, such as the Soviet Union, to get into an arms race to build an even more destructive bomb. The scene is less than 15 minutes long, but Oldman absolutely stands out as tough-talking President Truman, who has no regrets about deciding to drop the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that year. President Truman scolds Robert by saying: “Do you think Hiroshima and Nagasaki care who invented the bomb? They care about who dropped it. I did!”
The only two women with prominent speaking roles in the movie are mainly there as love interests to the male protagonist, even though these women have their own careers. Florence Pugh plays a commitment-phobic, Stanford-educated psychiatrist named Jean Tatlock, who has a fling with Robert around the same time that he meets his future wife Katherine, nicknamed Kitty (played by Emily Blunt), who is an outspoken botanist/biologist. Robert was Kitty’s fourth husband.
Both women are portrayed as being “difficult” for Robert, who’s depicted as the “long-suffering” person who has to deal with these strong-willed and opinionated women. Robert is portrayed as a “romantic” who just can’t help falling for women who might be wrong for him. “Oppenheimer” absolutely excuses his affairs with married women, including Kitty, whom he got pregnant when she was married to her third husband. Robert’s responsibility in this homewrecking infidelity is glossed over in the movie with a “wink, wink, nudge nudge/boys will be boys” attitude, while Kitty gets the most of the shaming.
As was the case with many wives in the 1940s and 1950s, Kitty (who came from an affluent family) had to make her career take a back seat to her husband’s career while she was the primary caretaker of their two children: son Peter and daughter Toni. Kitty is very unhappy in New Mexico. Her mental health starts to deteriorate, and she has some addiction issues.
Despite her personal challenges, Kitty maintains a defiant nature. Kitty encourages Robert to stand up for himself when he becomes the target of a smear campaign by former ally Lewis Strauss, who spreads lies that Robert is a secret Communist who might have been a spy for the Russian government. Blunt gives a compelling performance that has a little more depth than the typical “loyal wife of the main character.” Downey has his moments to shine as the sneaky and duplicitous Lewis, but Downey performs in “Oppenheimer” like he’s trying too hard to win an Oscar.
“Oppenheimer” is a very “male gaze” movie that wallows in showing a lot of men in ego rivalries and power struggles, while all the women react to whatever the men do. Pugh being topless in her sex scene with Murphy is a very “male gaze” decision, since she didn’t need to be shown with her naked breasts exposed in this movie. Meanwhile, her male co-star had absolutely no “private parts” nudity in this sex scene. Directors really need to stop this blatant double standard about nudity in sex scenes, where women have to show some kind of nudity, while men do not have to show any nudity. It’s a very outdated double standard that’s a turnoff to many viewers who aren’t stuck in this type of backwards and sexist mindset.
The lead-up to the making of the atomic bomb isn’t nearly as interesting in “Oppenheimer” as what happens in the aftermath, when Robert struggles with the consequences of his invention. He becomes famous and lauded as a war hero in America, but with that fame come scrutiny and jealousy from some of the people he had trusted as colleagues. People who know what happened in real life to Oppenheimer can debate if what is shown in the movie is entirely accurate. The “Oppenheimer” movie obviously makes him look like a sympathetic person.
One of the ways that “Oppenheimer” depicts Robert’s guilt is when he hallucinates visions of people in front of him dying from the bomb, with their faces melting or their bodies being ripped apart. Curiously, he only envisions white people suffering from this catastrophe, not the thousands of Japanese people who were actually killed by the bomb he invented. It might be a tone-deaf part of the movie, or it might be writer/director Nolan’s way of showing that even “liberal” Robert Oppenheimer couldn’t see past his own insular world that has no racial diversity.
“Oppenheimer” is not the masterpiece that some people might hail it to be. As a history-based drama, it’s got a very narrow point of view. However, the performances by Murphy, Blunt and Oldman elevate this very long movie, even if much of the dialogue is basic and perfunctory. During the course of the story, Robert Oppenheimer goes from being an underdog to a hero to an embattled public figure. It’s this most difficult phase of his life that brings out his true character and the best that “Oppenheimer” has to offer.
Universal Pictures will release “Oppenheimer” in U.S. cinemas on July 21, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in 1970, in New Jersey and New York City, the comedy/drama film “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” (based on Judy Blume’s 1970 novel) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: In a period of time when Margaret Simon goes from 11 to 12 years old, she worries about making friends at her new school, reaching puberty, and dealing with family issues that have to do with her parents’ interfaith marriage.
Culture Audience: “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” will appeal primarily to fans of the novel on which the movie is based and family-friendly movies about adolescent girls.
Even though Judy Blume has authored many bestselling novel (most in the young adult genre), not many of these books have been made into feature films. The movie adaptation of Blume’s 1970 novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” is a delightful and faithful version of the beloved book. It’s not edgy, but it has accessible and well-done depictions of family angst, adolescent self-discovery and personal growth.
Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, the comedy/drama “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” has the benefit of a very talented cast that does justice to all the complex emotions that are described in the book. Because the story takes place in 1970, it recalls a simpler time in America, when children did not have to deal with the traumas of cyberbullying and school mass shootings. At the same time, children back then had less resources and less options on how to get information on issues about growing up. Despite the “quaint” aspects of the story, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” still has relatable topics that are timeless, especially to girls and women.
The movie “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” begins with the title character Margaret Simon (played by Abby Ryder Fortson), who has no siblings, feeling uprooted and unsettled. Her father Herb Simon (played by Benny Safdie) has gotten a job promotion, so he and his wife Barbara Simon (played by Rachel McAdams), who is Margaret’s compassionate mother, have decided to move from their New York City apartment to a larger home in New Jersey. The move is only a less than 50 miles away, but it might as well be a long-distance move, as far as Margaret is concerned.
Margaret, who celebrates her 12 birthday during the course of the story, worries about leaving her current friends behind and whether or not she’ll make friends in her new school. The move also means that Margaret won’t be able to spend as much time with Herb’s widowed mother Sylvia Simon (played by Kathy Bates), who lives in New York City and has a close emotional bond to Margaret. Sylvia is the only grandparent in Margaret’s life.
It’s later revealed that Barbara’s parents (who are conservative Christians) disapproved of Barbara marrying Herb, just because Herb is Jewish. Barbara’s parents, who live in Ohio, practically disowned Barbara because of this difference in religion. Barbara has been estranged from her parents for years. As a result, Herb and Barbara have decided not to raise Margaret in any religion and have told Margaret that she can decide which religion (if any) she wants to choose when she’s an adult.
Margaret is worried about other things besides moving to a new place. Many of her female peers are starting to grow breasts and get their menstrual periods. Margaret hasn’t had those biological developments yets, and she’s terrified that she’ll be a considered a “freak” if she’s a late bloomer. Much of the story is about Margaret getting involved in some hijinks (and a lot of talking to God) about wanting to become biologically developed by the time she becomes a teenager.
The movie also prominently features Barbara’s self-discovery and coming to terms with her family issues. Because Herb is earning more money from his job promotion, Barbara has decided to give up her job as an art teacher and become a homemaker. It allows her to spend more time at home and notice more of what’s going on with Margaret, who goes back and forth between confiding in her mother and hiding her true feelings from her mother.
On the day that the Simon family moves into their New Jersey house, a talkative neighbor girl with bossy and elitist tendencies comes over unannounced and invites Margaret to play in the yard sprinklers with her. Nancy Wheeler (played by Elle Graham) considers herself to eb the “queen bee” of her small clique at the school that she and Margaret attend. Nancy invites Margaret into a “secret club” that includes two other students from the school: easygoing Janie Loomis (played by Amari Price) and slightly nerdy Gretchen Potter (played by Katherine Kupferer).
Margaret makes fast friends with this group of girls. But she finds out that being part of this “secret club” comes with a social price. One of the club’s “rules” is that all of the members have to tell each other very private things, such as which boys they have crushes on and when they get their menstrual periods. Nancy is also a catty gossip who spreads unfounded promiscuity rumors about a classmate named Laura Danker (played by Isol Young), who is taller than most of the students and has all the physical developments of a woman.
A lot of stories with these types of adolescent would make a lot of the conflicts center on rivalries to get the attention of boys. There’s a small subplot about Margaret seeming to have a mutual attraction to a “nice guy” classmate nickname Moose Freed (played by Aidan Wojtak-Hissong), who is a friend of Nancy’s bratty older brother Evan Wheeler (played by Landon Baxter). However, the movie is much more focused on the female bonding, such as the relationships that Margaret has with her new friends, as well as those with her mother Barbara and grandmother Sylvia.
If these female relationships are the heart of the story, Margaret’s evolving relationship with God is the soul of the story. Just like in the book, Margaret talks to God during moments when she feels the most hope, fear, confusion and joy. She has to reckon with her evolving feelings about religion when a teacher named Mr. Benedict (played by Echo Kellum) encourages her to choose religion as her subject for an assigned class project where the student can choose which topic to research.
Ryder Fortson gives an utterly charming performance in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” She isn’t overly perky, not is she an insufferable grouch. She’s completely convincing as the Margaret character in the way that Blume depicted her in the book. McAdams and Bates also have standout moments in their roles as family matriarchs who are very different from each other but share a similar fierce love for Margaret.
The movie gets occasionally dull and repetitive. This story is not going to endear itself to anyone who will get tired of hearing Margaret mope about how her breasts aren’t growing as fast as she wants to them to grow. And there’s a useless subplot about Barbara volunteering for too many parent-teacher association committees that are overseen by Nancy’s mother Jan Wheeler (played by Kate MacCluggage), who likes to think of herself as the high-society maven of the mothers in the community. (Blume has a cameo in the movie as a dog-walking neighbor.) Jan ends up overloading Barbara with work.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” is certainly told through the lens of middle-class privilege, because it’s about girls who go to summer camp and never have to worry about being homeless or not having enough to eat. If people want a dark and depressing movie about adolescents, this isn’t it. But “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” delivers what it intends in offering a wistful and nostalgic look at adolescent girlhood in early 1970s America but remaining relatable to anyone who goes though a journey of self-identity.
Lionsgate will release “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” in U.S. cinemas on April 28, 2023. A sneak preview of the movie was shown in select U.S. cinemas on April 19, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the early 2020s, the dramatic film “Stars at Noon” features a cast of white and Latino characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: An American journalist, who’s stranded in Nicaragua and doing sex work for money, gets involved with a mysterious British man, who has shady people chasing after him.
Culture Audience: “Stars at Noon” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of filmmaker Claire Denis, but this frequently dull misfire of a film will disappoint anyone looking for an intriguing, well-written story.
“Stars at Noon” is a messy and boring drama that’s an example of the worst type of pretentious self-indulgence, not only from the main characters but also the filmmakers. The dialogue is awful and unrealistic. And the acting isn’t much better. The cast members who portray the would-be couple at the center of the story do not have believable chemistry with each other. “Stars at Noon” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in France, and its U.S. premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City.
Directed by Claire Denis, “Stars at Noon” is adapted from Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel “The Stars at Noon.” Denis, Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius co-wrote the “Stars at Noon” adapted screenplay. The screenplay is the weakest link in this dreadful movie, which is filled with cringeworthy conversations that sound very fake and nonsensical. Denis’ direction also falters in “Stars at Noon,” by making what should have been an engaging thriller into a sluggish and annoying jumble of self-important garbage that rambles and stumbles until the movie’s underwhelming conclusion.
“Stars at Noon” irritates from the moment that viewers find out it’s peddling a “Pretty Woman” fantasy, where an irreverent sex worker expects one of her male customers to come to her rescue and save her from a life of desperation and degradation. That’s essentially what the entire movie is about, even though the filmmakers try to dress it up and fool audiences into thinking it’s an adventerous story about two “outlaw lovers” on the run. The “Stars at Noon” movie changes the book’s 1980s time period, so that the movie takes place in the early 2020s, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The era might have been updated for the movie, but “Stars at Noon” is filled with a lot of old-fashioned misogyny.
The misogyny is very apparent in how lead character Trish Johnson (played by Margaret Qualley) is written and presented as a whiny ditz who gets herself into predicaments and doesn’t have the common sense to get herself out of them. Trish is an American who’s stranded in Managua, Nicaragua, because a police officer called Subtenente Verga (played by Nick Romano) has taken her passport. Why? Verga suspects she’s doing an undercover investigation as a journalist.
“The Stars at Noon” book was set in the backdrop of the Nicaraguan Revolution, during the Contra War phase, when the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew the right-wing Somoza dictatorship. The entire Nicaraguan Revolution spanned from 1961 to 1990. Because the “Stars at Noon” movie takes place in the early 2020s, the Nicaraguan political turmoil is never fully explained. There are some vague references to Trish trying to uncover government corruption.
Trish calls herself a journalist, but she doesn’t do any journalism work in this movie. All she does for money is have sex with men, including Subtenente Verga, because she’s hoping that having sex with him will convince him to give her passport back to her. It isn’t necessarily misogynistic to show that Trish is doing sex work for money. (Sex workers are often desperate people who shouldn’t be judged too harshly by society.) What’s misogynistic about this portrayal is that Trish (who likes to tell everyone how smart and resourceful she is) is made to look like an idiot who hasn’t figured out other ways to make money where she doesn’t have to sexually degrade herself.
Trish speaks fluent Spanish. Apparently, it never occurred to her to get work as a translator/interpreter. And as a so-called journalist, she’s so lacking in basic common sense, it’s embarrassing. You don’t have to be a journalist to know that if you’re an American citizen whose passport is lost or stolen in a foreign country, you can go to the U.S. embassy in that country to get an emergency passport re-issued. Trish does none of these things, of course, because there would be no “Stars at Noon” movie if Trish actually had the intelligence that she thinks she has.
Trish has a very off-putting way of trying to make people she interacts with seem inferior to her, when her whole life is such a train wreck, she’s in no place to judge. She actually doesn’t have a journalist assignment to be in Nicaragua. Trish apparently went there hoping to find something to “investigate” and then sell the story later.
A scene that comes about midway through the movie shows that Trish is also a failure as a journalist. She makes a videoconference call to an unnamed American magazine editor (played by John C. Reilly, making a cameo), and she begs him to give her an assignment. The editor works at a monthly magazine about sustainable, high-class travel. Trish pitches a story idea to him, by saying she can do an article about a nature reserve in Costa Rica.
The editor gives Trish an emphatic “no” to her pitch. He also reminds Trish that the last time he gave her an assignment, she just took the advance money and never delivered the assignment. In other words, Trish has burned her bridges with this editor. He tells her to lose his number and never contact him again.
Before this unpleasant conversation happened, Trish had gotten sexually involved with a British man named Daniel DeHaven (played by Joe Alwyn), whom she met at a bar in Managua. Daniel, who likes to dress in immaculate white suits, tells Trish in their first meeting that he’s a consultant for a British oil company named Watts Oil. Daniel isn’t really telling the truth about his identity. It soon becomes apparent that some menacing-looking people are chasing after Daniel.
This is the vapid conversation that Trish and Daniel have when they first meet in the bar. Daniel tells Trish that he’s from London, and he asks her where she’s from. Trish replies, “From here, there and yonder.” She then tells him, “You have the kind of manners that can get you killed out here.” Trish then says that she’s a special correspondent in “the north area.”
Daniel asks her, “Are you for sale?” Trish replies, “I’m press.” Daniel says that he’s a member of the press too. (He’s really not.) Trish answers, “Then, we’re all for sale.” Trish asks him to have supper with her, but Daniel declines because he says it’s too late in the night. Trish then bluntly tells him, “For a price, I’ll sleep with you.”
Trish insists that Daniel pay her in American dollars. Her price? A measly $50. It’s just more of the film’s misogyny on display. And to make Trish look like even more moronic, she doesn’t get the payment up front, like a street-smart sex worker is supposed to do. She gets the money after she has sex with Daniel.
So what does this tell audiences about Trish? She’s not only stupid, but she also sells herself short as a sex worker. And yet, throughout the entire movie, she acts like a know-it-all, when she actually knows very little. It’s very hard to respect any character who is this aggressively obnoxious and dumb.
During the first sexual encounter between Daniel and Trish, this is the type of mindless conversation that they have. Trish tells him, “Your skin is so white, it’s like being fucked by a cloud.” Is that supposed to be a compliment?
At some point during this encounter, Daniel tells Trish that he’s married. “I commit adultery often.” Trish doesn’t care. After Daniel pays her, Trish tells him, “I’m not here for the dollars. I’m here for the air conditioning.”
If you have the patience to sit through all of “Stars at Noon,” get used to more of this eye-rolling, mind-numbing, extremely aggravating dialogue, because the movie is full of it. Of course, since the movie is pushing a tale of “outlaw lovers on the run,” it isn’t long before Trish finds out that Daniel has dangerous people who are after him.
Because Trish is desperate to get out of Nicaragua, and she knows Daniel has the type of money that she doesn’t, Trish figures that she can go on the run with Daniel, and he can help her in some way get back to the United States. Daniel and Trish commit some crimes and end up in various places in Nicaragua and then Costa Rica. And the movie tries very hard to convince viewers that Daniel and Trish fall in love. But it’s never believable.
Trish is just a self-absorbed flake who complains a lot. Daniel is a blank void who hides a lot of information about himself and never comes across as someone who could genuinely fall in love with someone like Trish. Qualley seems to be making an effort to bring sympathy in her portrayal of this very silly and selfish character, but Trish is just too much of a babbling mess for most viewers to care about her. Alwyn seems to be going through the motions in his performance.
Daniel sees right through Trish’s insecurity, and makes some cutting remarks to her in a scene that happens shortly after they had sex for the first time. In this scene, Daniel and Trish are hanging out together in a bar in Nicaragua. Trish is acting superior to him, as usual. But then, Daniel tells her that prostitutes like to think that they’re in control of their customers, when they’re not, because the prostitutes depend on their customers for money. There’s enough truth in this statement that it leaves Trish (temporarily) speechless, because she can’t think of a snappy comeback.
It’s one of the few times in “Stars at Noon” where a conversation actually resembles something that could take place in real life. But the vast majority of this bloated movie (which has a too-long total running time of 136 minutes) is just a shambolic and tedious slog of Daniel and Trish trying to avoid capture while sometimes arguing and having sex. The Daniel/Trish sex scenes, which are very monotonous and generic, fail to convince that Daniel and Trish are together because of passionate lust.
The supporting characters in “Stars at Noon” are so hollow and underdeveloped, most of them don’t even have names or distinctive personalities. An unnamed Costa Rican cop (played by Danny Ramirez), who’s one of the people chasing after Daniel and Trish, does a lot of predictable sneering and smirking. An unnamed CIA operative (played by Benny Safdie), who’s also looking for this “outlaw couple,” spouts horrendous lines of dialogue while looking smug.
This what the CIA operative says when he comments on female sex workers: “They’re all as lonely as widows. They haven’t had a man’s hand on their thighs since Jesus was in diapers and Moses had a pacifier.” If this the type of trash screenwriting that you think is quality filmmaking, then perhaps you might like “Stars at Noon.” Everyone else is best advised to steer clear of this horrible movie.
A24 released “Stars at Noon” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 14, 2022. Hulu will premiere the movie on October 28, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in 1973 in California’s San Fernando Valley, the comedy/drama “Licorice Pizza” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old woman become unlikely business partners and friends, while she has conflicting feelings about his desire to be more than friends with her.
Culture Audience: “Licorice Pizza” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson and movies set in the 1970s with a quirky but emotion-driven storyline.
The rollicking and occasionally far-fetched dramedy “Licorice Pizza” tests the boundaries of if it’s appropriate to celebrate that a 15-year-old boy wants to seduce a 25-year-old woman. The movie doesn’t waste time with this story concept because it’s delivered in a very “only in a movie” way in the film’s opening scene, where characters who are supposed to be total strangers immediately and unrealistically exchange snappy banter that sounds exactly like what it is: well-rehearsed dialogue. This over-familiarity between strangers sets the tone for much of what happens in “Licorice Pizza,” which writer/director/producer Paul Thomas Anderson presents as a version of a heightened reality.
Any controversy about underage teen sexuality is avoided because there’s no sex in the movie, but there is a lot of adult language about sex and sexuality. “Licorice Pizza” (which is set in 1973, in California’s San Fernando Valley) is a movie were viewers will have to suspend some disbelief. That’s because a great deal of the story is about how this same “lovestruck” teenager is able to go from being a socially awkward student to being a confident and hustling business owner in the space of what seems to be a few short months.
“Licorice Pizza” is also a movie that is supposed to make some viewers uncomfortable, as well as make viewers laugh at the unpredictable comedy, feel tearkerking empathy during some of the drama depicting unpleasant realities, and get heartwarming joy from some of the romantic scenes. This is Anderson’s filmmaking style. People who watch his movies probably know it already. Anderson’s screenplays aren’t always perfect or consistently believable, but he casts his movies with talented actors who give memorable performances. Even the worst of Anderson’s movies have scenes and acting that people will remember.
“Licorice Pizza” mostly triumphs because of the cast members’ performances and when the movie is about the comedy that can be found in human flaws and quirks. “Licorice Pizza” tends to be less charming when it seems to both ridicule and embrace certain tropes in romantic movies. You can’t really have it both ways in the same film, and if you try to do that, it just makes filmmaking choices look wishy-washy or confused.
For example, there’s a recurring emphasis on the would-be “Licorice Pizza” couple—15-year-old Gary Valentine (played Cooper Hoffman) and 25-year-old Alana Kane (played by Alana Haim)—having scenes where one is running toward the other. They run either to help the other in a moment of distress; they run together while holding hands; or they run to indicate, “I’m so happy to see you that I can’t wait to hug you!”
These running scenes (some of which happen very abruptly) seem to be a spoof on clichés that are over-used in sappy romantic movies, as if this would-be couple might suddenly begin singing too. But there are moments when “Licorice Pizza” earnestly wants these running scenes to be taken seriously, in order to tug at viewers’ heartstrings. It’s this somewhat off-kilter tone that might be a turnoff to some viewers, but other viewers might think it’s compelling.
“Licorice Pizza” has some subtle and not-so-subtle commentary on the rigid gender roles that affect people’s perceptions of who should be the pursuers when it comes romance and sex. After all, reactions to “Licorice Pizza” would probably be very different if the movie had been about a 15-year-old girl who wants to date a 25-year-old man. “Licorice Pizza” certainly isn’t the first movie to be about an underage teenager who “falls in love” with an adult. But it’s impossible not to notice that a lot of what Gary gets away with would not be allowed for a female character of the same age, even if the movie were set in the present day.
It’s more of a commentary on sexism in society than Anderson’s personal filmmaking choices. However, “Licorice Pizza” still clings to the old-fashioned teen movie tropes of a nerdy teenage guy pining over a love interest and all the things he does to try to impress this love interest. It automatically sets up the teenage boy as the underdog. Movies like this almost never have an unhappy ending. The main difference between “Licorice Pizza” and most of the other teen-oriented movies that follow this over-used formula is that Anderson comes up with much better dialogue and more interesting characters portrayed by skillfull cast members. These are all the saving graces of “Licorice Pizza.”
Gary is a mix of insecurity and bravado when it comes to how he’s going to win over Alana, as well as how he becomes an aspiring business mogul. In the movie’s opening scene, it’s yearbook portrait day at Gary’s high school. Alana is an assistant at the photography studio that’s doing the student portraits on the school’s campus. The photo studio is called Tiny Toes, which implies that its specialty is doing children’s photography.
Gary is standing in a line outside the school to get his photo taken. He first sees Alana, looking bored, as she walks past the queuing students to offer a comb and mirror to anyone who needs these items. People mostly ignore Alana, except for Gary, who seems to have a “love at first sight” moment and tells Alana that he wants to use a comb and mirror.
Gary doesn’t waste time in letting Alana know that he’s interested in her. He immediately asks Alana out on a dinner date. She essentially laughs in his face and tells him, “You’re 12 … How are you going to pay?” Gary proudly tells Alana that he’s actually 15 (as if that makes a difference in his underage status) and he earns money by being an actor.
He starts listing his acting credits, which are mostly in commercials or bit parts in TV shows. However, Gary has his biggest role so far as a supporting actor in a movie musical called “Under One Roof,” in which he plays one of several orphans in an orphanage. It’s this movie role that ends up being a catalyst for how Gary and Alana’s relationship develops.
Alana bluntly tells Gary that it would be illegal for her to date him, but Gary is undeterred. He replies, “You give me hope. This is fate that brought us together!” Who talks like that to someone they just met? Alana gives a more realistic reply: “I doubt it, but we’ll see.” During this first conversation, Gary and Alana find out that she lives in Encino, while he lives in Sherman Oaks, which are about six miles apart from each other.
Alana still refuses Gary’s invitation for a dinner date. She thinks it’s somewhat amusing that this teenager is ardently pursuing her after they just met. “Don’t call it a date,” Gary says in an effort to convince Alana to meet him at his favorite local restaurant, which is called Tail o’ the Cock. (Cue the double entendre jokes.) Gary tells Alana that all he wants is for her to “just come by and say hello.”
Gary has a brother named Greg (played by Milo Herschlag), who’s about 8 or 9 years old. Gary often has the responsibility to look after himself and Greg because their single mother Anita (played by Mary Elizabeth Ellis), who’s an independent publicist, frequently has to travel away from home because of her job. (Gary’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie.) At the time that Gary and Alana have met, Anita is temporarily in Las Vegas to do public-relations work for a hotel.
After school that day, Gary excitedly tells Greg, “I met the girl I’m going to marry one day!” Gary rushes to get ready for his “date” with Alana. There’s no guarantee that she’ll show up at the restaurant, but Gary is still hopeful. And sure enough, Alana shows up, with an expression on her face that seems to say, “I can’t believe I’m actually doing this.”
Gary is so elated and smitten that he intensely stares at Alana when they talk. She can also hear his heavy breathing. All of it makes her uncomfortable and she tells him to stop. “Stop breathing?” Gary asks. “Yes,” Alana says. It’s the first indication that Alana wants to be the “boss” of this relationship.
Later in the movie, there’s a great scene where Gary impulsively calls Alana but doesn’t say anything when she answers the phone. She can hear his breathing though, and quickly figures out that Gary is on the other line. He hangs up, but she calls him back, and she does the same thing that he did to her. It’s a very funny scene that says a lot about the kind of relationship that they have, which inevitably goes though ups and downs when issues of jealousy and control enter the mix.
Shortly after Gary and Alana’s “first date,” Anita calls Gary to tell him that she has to stay in Las Vegas longer than expected, so she can’t be his required guardian/chaperone on an upcoming trip to New York City for the press tour of “Under One Roof.” Gary doesn’t seem too disappointed because he knows that all he needs is someone over the age of 18 to accompany him on this trip. As soon as Gary’s mother tells him that she can’t go, you immediately know whom Gary will get to be his chaperone for this trip.
The movie cuts to Gary and Alana sitting together on the plane to New York City. At this point, Alana has been firm in telling Gary that she only wants to be his platonic friend. Gary tests her feelings when he openly flirts with an attractive flight attendant in her 20s, who seems to be impressed with Gary only because he confirms her assumption that he’s one of the actors in the movie’s cast.
Gary really isn’t interested in the flight attendant because he only wants to see Alana’s reaction to him flirting with another woman. Alana puts on a poker face, and then it’s her turn to play games with Gary. Soon after the flight attendant walks away, one of the actors in “Under One Roof” approaches Alana and makes it known that he thinks Alana is attractive and that he wants to date her.
His name is Lance Brannigan (played by Skyler Gisondo), and he’s in his late teens or early 20s. Alana enthusiastically flirts back with Lance. The look on Gary’s face indicates that he’s not happy about it, but he tries to play it cool and act like it doesn’t bother him. Expect to see more of these mind games between Gary and Alana when they see each other on dates with other people during the course of the movie.
In New York, the stars of “Under One Roof” go on a TV talk show called “The Jerry Best Show” and do an interview and a brief performance from the movie. Seated in the studio audience is Alana, who proudly tells the people sitting next to her that she’s Gary’s chaperone. The movie’s headliner is an actress named Lucy Doolittle (played by Christine Ebersole), who’s supposed to have an image that’s a combination of Lucille Ball and Shirley Jones. On camera, she’s personable with a bubbly personality.
Behind the scenes, Lucy is not the fun-loving actress that she appears to be. She’s a control freak who loses her temper easily. In a comedic scene, Gary says a sexual double entendre on the live broadcast. After the interview, Lucy gets so angry backstage that she yells at Gary and repeatedly hits him. Her lashing out is so bad that she has to be pulled off of Gary and carried away by security personnel.
This trip is a turning point in Gary and Alana’s relationship because it’s the first time that Alana sees what showbiz is like behind the scenes, and she sees that Gary gets a lot more freedom than most other teenagers who are his age. She thinks being an actor is much more glamorous than her boring life. And so, Alana starts to warm up to Gary (and Lance), and it isn’t long before Gary is helping her become an actress. Gary gets Alana a meeting with a talent agent named Mary Grady (played by Harriet Sansom Harris), who is probably Gary’s agent too.
Before the meeting, Gary advises Alana to lie and say she can do anything that is asked of her. For example, if a role requires horseriding skills, Gary says Alana should lie and say that she knows how to ride horses. He tells her that actors tell these lies all the time in auditions, and they figure out a way to quickly learn the skill if they get the role.
Gary is in the meeting with Alana and Mary, so he knows everything that’s being discussed. But once again, issues of jealousy and control come up when Alana tells Mary that she’s open to doing nude scenes. Gary reacts exactly how you think he would react. It’s quite the display of entitlement from an underage teenager toward a woman who isn’t even his girlfriend.
Alana ultimately gives a cringeworthy response to get Gary to stop whining about her willingness to do a nude scene. It is not one of the movie’s finer moments. However, it seems to be in the movie as an example of how lonely and desperate Alana is to get a certain amount of approval from Gary so that she can be in Gary’s life. Slowly but surely, viewers see that Alana is not as confident as she first appears to be.
Alana lives with her parents and her two older sisters, who are played by Alana Haim’s real-life parents and sisters. (In real life, the Haim sisters are the pop/rock trio Haim.) Alana’s father Moti (played by Moti Haim) is conservative and religious, while her mother Donna (played by Donna Haim) doesn’t say much. “Licorice Pizza” mentions several times that Alana and her family are Jewish, almost to the point where you wonder if the filmmakers intended the Kane family’s Jewishness to be some type of punchline.
Alana has a contentious relationship with oldest sister Este (played by Este Haim), who thinks that Alana is kind of a loser and isn’t afraid to say it to Alana. It’s not unusual for Alana and Este to have curse-filled arguments with each other. Alana has a much better relationship with middle sister Danielle (played by Danielle Haim), who seems to be Alana’s closest confidante. At one point, Alana asks Danielle if she thinks it’s weird that Alana is hanging out with teenagers like Gary and his friends. Danielle tries not to be judgmental and says no, but you can tell that Danielle might have just said that in order to not hurt Alana’s feelings.
Because really: It is weird for a 25-year-old to be hanging out with underage teenagers. It soon becomes clear that Alana has no friends of her own age and she’s trying to find her identity. She hasn’t quite figured out how she wants to make a living. But what she does know is that she wants to move out of her parents’ home and out of San Fernando Valley.
Alana thinks her ticket to a more glamorous life might be Lance, whom she begins dating, but Gary is never out of the picture. (One of the funniest scenes in the movie is when Alana brings Lance home for dinner to meet her family for the first time.) Eventually, Alana becomes involved in Gary’s plans to get rich by starting his own businesses. And this is where the movie takes a turn into some absurdity.
Gary is an aspiring entrepreneur. Without giving away too many details in this review, he ends up starting a business called Fat Bernie’s, where he sells water beds with the brand name Soggy Bottom. (Cue the scenes with more double entendres.) At another point in the movie, Gary opens a pinball arcade too.
Alana ends up working with Gary in his water-bed business, where they spend a lot of time doing phone sales. She also does in-person sales at the bed store. Another cringeworthy moment comes when Gary convinces Alana to wear a bikini and stand near the front door to attract customers. Alana seems ambivalent about how much she wants to use sex appeal for sales. Before the bikini scene happens, she gives Gary a verbal takedown when he tells her that she needs to sound sexier during her phone sales.
Yes, “Licorice Pizza” has a huge part of the story where a 15-year-old boy becomes a wheeler dealer business owner quicker than most kids complete a semester in school. There’s no logical explanation offered for it. Realistic details are never discussed in the movie, such as how he was able to rent all that retail/office space or how he got a delivery truck when he’s not even old enough to have a driver’s license. (It can be presumed he got the money to stock up on products from his actor income.) “Licorice Pizza” expects people to overlook that children under the age of 18 can’t sign contracts without a parent or guardian’s consent, unless the child is emancipated. Gary is not emancipated.
Because “Licorice Pizza” leans heavily into the subplot of Gary trying to become a business mogul, eventually his mother is never seen or mentioned in the movie again, and Gary is never seen in school again. He’s seen going to an industry trade show by himself, where he promotes his water-bed business at a booth. His only employees seem to be his brother, some local teenagers and Alana. These unrealistic aspects of the plot are undoubtedly the movie’s biggest flaws.
To make up for these gaps in reality, “Licorice Pizza” takes viewers on a topsy-turvy ride into Gary’s business antics and his continual pursuit to make Alana his girlfriend. There are some notable cameos from well-known actors who fulfill the expected eccentric roles in Anderson’s movies. Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s real-life partner) portrays a casting agent named Gale during one of Gary’s auditions for commercials. John C. Reilly has an uncredited cameo as a trade show attendee dressed in a Herman Munster costume. If Reilly isn’t the person in the actual costume, then it’s his voice that’s used for that character.
John Michael Higgins portrays Jerry Frick, the owner of a Japanese restaurant that hires Gary’s mother Anita to do publicity for the restaurant. The movie pokes fun at Jerry’s tone-deaf racism in the way that he speaks in a condescending, fake Japanese accent to his Japanese wife Mioko (played by Yumi Mizui), whom he later dumps for a younger Japanese wife named Kimiko (played by Megumi Anjo). Jerry treats Kimiko in the same way that he treated Mioko: as if he thinks he’s a culturally superior husband and she’s his inferior immigrant trophy wife.
Sean Penn portrays a famous actor named Jack Holden, who seems to be a character inspired by Steve McQueen or William Holden. Alana has auditioned for a role in one of Jack’s movies. Jack uses this pickup line on Alana, by name-dropping Grace Kelly, one of his past co-stars: “You remind me of Grace,” he tells Alana with a sleazy smirk. Jack invites Alana to have dinner with him at Tail o’ the Cock, where they are joined by the movie’s kooky director Rex Blau (played by Tom Waits), who seems to be wacked out on drugs.
And what do you know: Gary happens to be in the same restaurant too. What a coincidence. Gary is there with a few of his friends, including a teenager named Wendi Jo (played by Zoe Herschlag), whom Gary has been casually dating. Gary can see that Alana is dazzled by Jack, while Alana wonders who’s the cute teenage girl who’s with Gary. Alana and Gary exchange furtive, jealous glances at each other at their respective restaurant tables.
Later, Rex leads Jack, Alana and a small crowd of restaurant customers outside to a park near the restaurant for an impromptu stunt that he wants to film with a hand-held camera. Rex encourages Jack to ride a motorcycle with Alana as his passenger on the park grass. Gary is one of the crowd observers. And something happens that leads to one of the movie’s scenes where someone runs toward another as a romantic gesture.
Bradley Cooper has the best and most hilarious scenes in the movie, as hair-stylist-turned-movie-producer Jon Peters, who becomes a customer of Gary’s water-bed business. In real life, Peters was Barbra Streisand’s live-in lover at the time, so her name is mentioned multiple times in the movie, but no one portrays Streisand in “Licorice Pizza.”
Cooper gives an unhinged, hot-tempered performance as Peters. When Gary, Alana, Greg and a teenage friend show up at the Streisand/Peters home to do a water-bed installation, Peters makes this threat to Gary: “I’m going to kill you and your family if you fuck up my house,” he says in all seriousness. It’s around the time of this house visit that rationing began for car gas, due to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargo, so the gas shortage is used in the plot for some laugh-out-loud moments.
In real life, Peters is a self-admitted playboy, so that aspect of his personality is shown in the movie with his incessant boorishness when he makes unwanted sexual advances on women or when he talks about all the sex he’s had with women. (Trivia note: Peters was a producer of the 1976 version of “A Star is Born,” starring Streisand, and he was a producer of Cooper’s 2018 remake of “A Star Is Born.”) Alana becomes the target of his sexual harassment too, right in front of Gary, who looks on helplessly and does nothing to stop it.
Alana experiences other occasional forms of sexual harassment and sexism in the movie. For example, there’s a scene where she walks by a man (who’s a total stranger to her) who slaps her on her rear end as she passes him. This type of harassment is dealt with in a way that was typical for 1973: The person being harassed just shrugs it off and says nothing. These days, many people still react to harassment in the same way, but with the #MeToo movement, harassment is now less likely to be tolerated, and people are speaking up about it more.
Even though there are plenty of comedic moments in “Licorice Pizza,” the movie never lets viewers forget the serious issue of the big difference in age and maturity between Alana and Gary. There’s a very telling scene where Alana is sitting on a sidewalk after going through a harrowing experience. As she tries to collect her composure, Alana sees Gary and a few of his friends goofing off with some gas cans nearby. She says nothing out loud, but the expression on her face shows how she’s feeling inside: “What the hell am I doing here hanging out with these kids? Has my life really come to this?”
Gary is a horny teenager, so his immediate reasons for wanting to be with Alana are very transparent. He’s also very open in telling Alana that he’s sexually interested in her, but he’s not rude and aggressive about it. Gary is usually polite and respectful. Alana is the more complex character in this relationship. The movie never really explains why she has no friends of her own age. It expects viewers to just accept that Alana is a lost soul.
In “Licorice Pizza,” Hoffman and Alana Haim both make impressive feature-film debuts as actors. One of the refreshing things about the movie is that Anderson did not choose glossy-looking Hollywood actors for these two central roles. Gary looks like a real teenager (acne and all), while Alana looks like how most real women look, with teeth that aren’t perfectly straight or skin that has some blemishes. In other words, she doesn’t look like a Hollywood robot with too much plastic surgery. Too often, movies about teenage dating tend to cast actors who look too old to play teenagers, and the “dream girl” is someone who looks like a near-perfect model.
More importantly in the casting of Hoffman (who’s the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Haim is how they’re entirely believable as the characters of Gary and Alana, even if not all the scenarios written for them are believable. Do they have chemistry together? Yes, as two friends who are navigating the tightrope when one friend wants to date the other, even though they know taking the relationship beyond friendship would be illegal. There’s a fine line between making a relationship like this seem sweet or tacky, and it usually has to do with how much sexual contact the people in the relationship have with each other.
Although there are many things about Alana’s relationship with Gary that are downright inappropriate, she still puts up certain barriers so that the relationship doesn’t cross the line into statutory rape. Alana is no angel, but even she has enough ethics not to sexually take advantage of Gary. What Alana struggles with—and what Alana Haim portrays so well—is the moral ambuguity about how emotionally close she should get to an underage teenager who wants to date her. How long can she keep him in the “friend zone”?
“Licorice Pizza” takes another sudden turn when Alana decides to do something more meaningful with her life besides selling water beds. She volunteers to work on the political campaign of a city council member named Joel Wachs (played by Benny Safdie), who is running for mayor. In the last third of the movie, Alana finds out something about Joel where she gets a certain awakening and a certain reckoning that turn “Licorice Pizza” from a lightweight romp to a movie of more substance.
Don’t expect the movie to explain why it’s called “Licorice Pizza.” There is no explanation in the movie, but Anderson has said in real life that he named the movie after a former chain of California music stories called Licorice Pizza. Anderson is known for making excellent soundtrack choices for his films. Fans of retro rock and pop will love the “Licorice Pizza” soundtrack, although music aficionados will notice that one of the soundtrack songs was released after 1973: Chris Norman and Suzi Quatro’s 1978 duet “Stumblin’ In.” However, songs that existed in 1973, such as like Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Let Me Roll It” and David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?,” are used perfectly in certain scenes to immerse viewers in the mood that each scene is trying to convey.
If viewers can tolerate the most unrealistic parts of “Licorice Pizza,” then they should prepare themselves for a ride that’s a rollercoaster of emotions with some admirable acting. The unique characters in Anderson’s movies and the anticipation of seeing what will happen to these characters during each story make an irresistible combination. You might not want to hang out with a lot of these characters in real life, but it’s hard not to be entertained by them when watching them in a movie.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures and Focus Features will release “Licorice Pizza” in select U.S. cinemas on November 26, 2021. The movie’s release expands to more U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2021.