Review: ‘Licorice Pizza,’ starring Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper and Benny Safdie

November 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in “Licorice Pizza” (Photo by Paul Thomas Anderson/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Licorice Pizza”

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

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.

Sean Penn and Alana Haim in “Licorice Pizza” (Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

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.

Review: ‘The Binge,’ starring Skyler Gisondo, Dexter Darden, Eduardo Franco, Grace Van Dien, Zainne Saleh and Vince Vaughn

August 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dexter Darden, Skyler Gisondo and Eduardo Franco in “The Binge” (Photo by Paul Viggiano/Hulu)

“The Binge” 

Directed by Jeremy Garelick

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy film “The Binge” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Three friends who are seniors in high school want to win a drug-fueled contest called The Gauntlet, which happens on the one day of the year when all drugs are legal to use for people ages 18 and over.

Culture Audience: “The Binge” will appeal mostly to people who like watching mindless teen comedies.

Skyler Gisondo and Grace Van Dien in “The Binge” (Photo by Paul Viggiano/Hulu)

It seems like “The Binge” was a movie that was inspired at least partially by “The Purge” franchise, and the filmmakers decided to use the same gimmick of “one day of the year that certain crimes are legal” and put it in a very derivative and not-very-funny teen comedy. “The Purge” horror franchise (which includes movies and a TV series spinoff) is all about showing what happens in the U.S. on the one day of the year that all crimes are legal. “The Binge,” which is far from a horror story, instead shows what happens in an unnamed U.S. city, specifically among a group of high schoolers, on the one day of the year that all drugs become legal to use by anyone who’s at least 18 years old.

Besides the obvious “binge and purge” analogy, “The Binge” takes a lot of its cues from “The Purge,” by having the same concept that the reason for this “one day it’s legal to commit certain crimes” is to act as a deterrent to commit the crimes in the future. The idea is that when people get to release these pent-up criminal urges out of their system and are allowed to commit these crimes for one day out of the year, they’ll be so repelled by the horrible results, that it will make them less likely to commit the crimes during the other days of the year when the crimes are illegal.

In the world of “The Binge” (which was directed by Jeremy Garelick and written by Jordan VanDina), alcohol and nicotine are among the drugs that are illegal except for on Binge Day. It’s explained in the beginning of the movie that the reason for this modern-day Prohibition is because America’s drug problem got so out-of-control that lawmakers decided to ban all drugs that have been medically proven to cause diseases (such as cancer) and deaths.

The high schoolers who are at the center of this story sometimes talk about their parents reminiscing about the “good old days” when they could get drunk and it wouldn’t be a crime. (The school in the movie is called American High, which is a cheeky nod to the American High production company that made this film.) Binge Day is therefore a big deal to the teens, especially those who are old enough to participate.

In addition to “The Purge” ripoff idea, “The Binge” recycles most of the over-used tropes that are found in teen movies, including the average-looking, not-very-popular guy who has a secret crush on a good-looking, popular girl. The “average guy” is the story’s protagonist whom the audience is supposed to root for when he keeps bungling his changes to impress the girl he wants to date. In “The Binge,” this guy is Griffin Friedlander (played by Skyler Gisondo), who spends almost the whole movie trying to work up the nerve to ask his dream girl out on a date.

Griffin’s crush is Lena (played by Grace Van Dien), and she’s a student at the same high school, where they are both seniors. And, of course, Griffin wants to ask her to the school’s prom, but he’s too shy. Lena is nice to Griffin, because they’ve known each other for several years, but she seems to want to put him in the casual “friend zone.” 

The average guy/protagonist usually isn’t a complete loner, because he usually has a sidekick/best friend, who’s more confident/wacky/extroverted than he is. In “The Binge,” that character is Hags (played by Dexter Darden), who has his own secret crush who goes to the same school. Hags wants to date bratty troublemaker Sarah Martin (played by Zainne Saleh), who predictably wants nothing to do with him.

And often, in formulaic teen movies like this one, there’s a third person who ends up in the “underdog” group of friends who spend most of the movie trying to achieve the same goal. The “third wheel/weirdo” in the story is Andrew (played by Eduardo Franco), who’s not very close to Griffin and Hags, but Andrew ends up hanging out with them and becoming their friend by default because he wants to be their “wingman” during Binge Day.

Andrew wants to help Hags and Griffin win The Gauntlet, a Binge Day endurance contest to see who can take the most hard drugs and drink the most alcohol without overdosing and ending up in a hospital or dead. There’s no real prize for this contest, except bragging rights and a photo that hangs on a wall in some random place that’s never explained in the movie. The participants in this contest are mostly people in their teens and 20s.

Griffin is the type of student who’s obedient and doesn’t like taking risks, so he’s very reluctant to participate in The Gauntlet. Hags convinces Griffin that they should enter the contest because it will impress the girls they want to impress. When Lena tells Griffin that she’s thinking of binging on Binge Day, he decides to enter The Gauntlet.

Griffin is also motivated to impress Lena when he finds out that a mystery admirer has asked her to the school’s prom by giving her a series of riddle-filled notes that the admirer leaves as clues to his identity. Lena hasn’t given an answer yet because she doesn’t know who her mystery admirer is, but she assumes it’s a very popular student whom she has a crush on but she thinks he might be out of her league. Part of the movie’s plot is a “race against time” for Griffin to impress Lena and ask her to be his prom date before she can find out the identity of her mystery admirer.

And let’s not forget about the parents in the movie, which makes these authority figures into the same tired stereotypes that have been seen before in dozens of other teen comedies. The head of the school is Principal Carlsen (played by Vince Vaughn), who is tyrannical and takes pleasure in punishing students who break the rules. Therefore, he’s always on the lookout for the students to do something wrong so he can bust them. And what a coincidence: Principal Carlsen also happens to be Lena’s father, making it even more nerve-wracking for Griffin to ask Lena out on a date.

Griffin’s parents Karyn and Chester (played by Jessica Kirson and Elon Gold) and Hags’ parents (played Deanna McKinney and Godfrey) are somewhat generic characters that are briefly shown in the movie. Something happens in the movie to explain why these parents don’t interfere in their kids’ Binge Day plans.

Every teen movie usually has at least one parent who behaves inappropriately. And in “The Binge,” that character is Andrew’s single mother Diedre (played by Eileen Galindo), who inflicts abuse on him one minute (she puts out her cigar on his tongue during an argument) and then acts lovey-dovey the next minute, by sweetly telling him, “I love you … Give me a kiss.”

During a school assembly, Principal Carlsen lectures the students about the dangers of Binge Day and tells the students who are 18 years old that they shouldn’t participate in Binge Day, even though it would be legal. As a scare tactic, Principal Carlsen shows examples of some people who died or were permanently disabled because of drug-fueled antics they indulged in on Binge Day. Of course, it’s a scare tactic that doesn’t work because plenty of the legal-age students are planning to participate in Binge Day.

Participants and attendees of The Gauntlet are given a wristband to enter the place where The Gauntlet is being held. While showing up unannounced in the boys’ locker room, Principal Carlsen sees that Griffin has one of these wristbands. A nervous Griffin makes up a lie that the wristband isn’t his and that he accidentally found the wristband. Principal Carlsen then confiscates the wristband and warns Griffin that he better not participate in Binge Day.

How obnoxious is Principal Carlsen? In his conversation with Griffin in the locker room, Principal Carlsen speaks of troublemaking partier student Sarah in these derogatory terms: “That bitch has chaotic energy. She’s like a scorpion in a toaster.” And when Principal Carlsen sees Hags in the locker room, he tells Hags: “Try to find a nickname that’s a little more normal, like Lucas or Kwan.” These are lines that are supposed to pass as jokes in the movie.

After Principal Carlsen has taken Griffin’s wristband, misfit student Andrew ends up hanging out with Griffin and Hags because Andrew has the type of wristband that Griffin needs to get into The Gauntlet event. Instead of selling the wristband to Griffin, Andrew bargains with Griffin and Hags to be their “wingman” pal during Binge Day and to help them win The Gauntlet. Andrew’s bullying fraternal twin brother Seb (played by Esteban Benito) is also a contestant in The Gauntlet, so it’s clear that Andrew has another reason to want to win the contest.

“The Binge” has a lot of typical “teens who want to party” shenanigans in the scenes leading up to The Gauntlet. Most of these scenes aren’t really funny and have been done much better in other similar movies. It comes as no surprise that an animal (in this case, a cow) ends up being an unwilling part of these partying antics, which leads to the inevitable “No animals were harmed” disclaimer in the movie’s end credits.

One of the problems with “The Binge” is that so much of it is repetitive filler. And the cast members do nothing outstanding in their performances, although Franco has a few scene-stealing moments. “The Binge” is supposed to be raunchy, but it holds back on showing a lot of adult-oriented debauchery during the first two-thirds of the movie. Most of “The Binge” is about straight-laced Griffin acting horrified at some of the silly scenarios that happen on the way to The Gauntlet.

The one truly original moment in the movie is actually a little bizarre and out-of-place: The cast members break into a song-and-dance number called “We’re Gonna Get High.” It’s not supposed to be a drug-induced hallucination, but something that spontaneously happens while they’re all under various degrees of intoxication. The idea is that they’ve lost their inhibitions together and somehow magically came up with this song-and-dance number together.

This “We’re Gonna Get High” musical number looks and sounds like something that would have been in an episode of “Glee” if the episode was about getting stoned at a party. The song is very much in the mold of a high-school musical. In other words, there’s nothing really edgy about it, even if the lyrics mention cocaine, heroin and PCP. The song was written by “The Binge” director Garelick, screenwriter VanDina, Christopher Lennertz and Matt Bowen. It seems as if this random musical scene in “The Binge” was concocted as a sugary-sweet way to deflect any criticism the movie might get for glorifying drug binges. What’s actually more offensive is that “The Binge” just isn’t funny.

As for the idea that people would willingly ingest as many drugs as possible in order to win a stupid contest, “The Binge” makes no attempt to show that the main characters could put themselves in danger by doing this medically dangerous stunt. It should come as no surprise that no one in this group dies or ends up in a hospital, because that would ruin the limited comedy of this mindless film. “The Binge” wants to be a teen version of “The Hangover” meets “The Purge,” but almost all the jokes and scenarios fall flat. Instead of “The Binge,” this movie should be called “The Cringe.”

Hulu premiered “The Binge” on August 28, 2020.

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