"Don't Look Up" at the Hollywood Schmucks
I’m not usually much of a “pop culture commentary” guy, but it sure seemed like the movie Licorice Pizza contained an intriguing message about the potentially evolving sensibilities of Hollywood. And I’ve yet to see anyone else comment on this — not that I've looked very hard — so I figure I’ll give it a shot. The movie isn’t especially plot-heavy; it’s mainly a “period piece” set in 1970s Los Angeles that just kind of invites you to soak in the atmospherics at a leisurely pace. So I don’t think what’s to follow are especially devastating spoilers, but read no further if you’re super spoiler-sensitive, I guess.
The main character, Alana, is an adrift 20-something woman who one day gets romantically propositioned by a 15-year-old boy named Gary. This occurs while she’s working as a photographer’s assistant during School Picture Day at Gary’s high school somewhere in the Valley. She first derisively turns down his offer for a date, but then shows up anyway. The two seem to enjoy themselves, and she gives him her phone number — despite rejecting any prospect that a romantic relationship could develop.
Soon after, she ends up accompanying him as an adult “chaperone” on a trip to New York, and the two stumble through various misadventures as the movie progresses, all while Gary continues to pursue her. If there’s a thematic through-line, it’s the ambiguity around the nature of their relationship — the audience is clearly being set up to “root for” a climactic payoff whereby the relationship is consummated in some fashion.
This puts the audience in a position where they’re encouraged to be “rooting for” the consummation of a romantic relationship that by contemporary standards would be considered profoundly immoral, abusive, criminal, and even “pedophilic.” But wouldn’t you know it: the payoff happens! Alana — who for most of the movie says she’s 25, though at one point slips up and admits she’s 28 — does eventually profess her love for Gary, and they engage in a passionate kiss. Recall, this is a 15-year-old whom she met as an adult working at his high school. Yet the implication is they forge a full-fledged romantic relationship and go on to live happily ever after.
Glance at the social media commentary about this movie, as I unwisely did, and you’ll see people exclaiming stuff like, “The movie would’ve been great except for the creepy age gap! That made me so uncomfortable! They could’ve just had Gary be 18 or something, and everything would’ve been fine.”
Well, Gary’s age certainly appeared to have been a conscious creative choice on the part of the filmmakers. The ambiguous dynamic between the two main characters — foundational to the story — derives from them having met while one was an adult and the other was a high school student. So if the filmmakers had just tinkered with the age discrepancy a bit to accommodate modern sensibilities, the whole premise of the movie would’ve been different. There’s a scene where Alana asks her sister if it’s “weird” to be constantly hanging around with this 15-year-old and his friends, and the sister says no, but Alana is clearly conflicted about it. At least temporarily.
In an interview, director Paul Thomas Anderson was asked about the “age gap” issue and said, “There’s no line that’s crossed.” Which is interesting, because Anderson could only conceivably say this if he’s also rejecting contemporary mores about the propriety of age discrepancies in romantic relationships.
Alana shows Gary her breasts at one point! They don’t have any sexual interaction in that particular scene — in fact, she rejects his subsequent request to touch the breasts — but whichever way you look at it, she’s an adult exposing herself to a minor. In another scene they sensually lie in bed together. By the end, as mentioned, she professes her love for him and they kiss passionately. Does anyone really struggle to imagine how it would be interpreted today if, say, some 28-year-old public figure was found to have engaged in such acts with a 15-year-old? Imagine if those acts were discovered by the Los Angeles Times and reported as an investigative news story. It’d obviously be most incendiary if the adult was a male and the minor was a female, but a scandal of epic proportions could be easily whipped up regardless of gender distribution — inevitably resulting in the adult being denounced, fired, and probably prosecuted.
Which gets back to Anderson’s contention that “no line” was crossed. Because the lines that have been drawn today would very obviously make the kind of behavior depicted in the movie radically impermissible. Per contemporary standards, Alana would be a despicable “groomer” — she was his adult chaperone at one stage! But based on the nature of her interactions with Gary, the notion of her “grooming” him seems utterly ridiculous. Their “courtship,” if you want to call it that, is portrayed as completely benign. Nor is their age discrepancy presented as posing any particularly dire moral dilemmas. Gary is the one who pursues her — relentlessly! — and nothing about the way they engage with one another comes across as creepy or manipulative.
In the totality of the movie, the idea that Alana could somehow be accused of predatorily abusing Gary is almost incomprehensible. But that’s exactly what she would be accused of in two seconds today. An incredibly harsh societal penalty would be imposed on the ground that she exposed herself to a minor, “groomed” him, and sexually assaulted him. No amount of mitigating context would be deemed an acceptable rationalization for her actions.
Contemporary moral codes dictate that the “power dynamics” inherent to such an age discrepancy would make Alana the clear-cut wrongdoer, because she’s 28 and he’s 15. But it’s actually Gary who seems to wield relatively greater “power” in the relationship — he’s depicted as a charismatic, precociously successful, budding CEO type with an established acting career and numerous business ventures. Whereas Alana lives at home with her parents. Imagine a 28-year-old today trying to justify their sexual contact with a 15-year-old on the ground that the 15-year-old is the one who really wielded the “power.” How do you think that would fly?
It’s juvenile to expect that movies, or any work of art, must always force-feed the audience black-and-white moral judgments. And yet, it’s still worth noting that no negative judgment is rendered on Alana’s conduct at all. This isn’t some fraught moral drama — it’s a blithe, feel-good semi-comedy with a seemingly happy ending, and the notion of the Alana/Gary relationship being inappropriate barely seems to occur to any of the characters. So when people on social media complain that by contemporary standards, the behavior depicted constitutes some combination of grooming, pedophilia, and/or sexual assault — and the movie conspicuously glosses over the moral implications of this — they’re right!
Which is… maybe the point?! That such damning accusations are often absurd when applied to the observable reality of human affairs, whether in the 1970s or today? The movie doesn’t exactly endorse the propriety of the relationship, but it does portray it as cute and harmless. (Please do not accuse me of endorsing relationships between 28-year-olds and 15-year-olds, which I am not doing.) Is it therefore fair to say that this movie signals Hollywood’s growing disenchantment with the hyper-moralizing, condemnatory frenzy of #MeToo — which over the past several years has tended to reduce the entire breadth of human interaction to over-simplified, salacious fragments? While stripping out obviously mitigating context? Because that would seem to be the message. This wasn’t some niche production; Paul Thomas Anderson is one of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors, and the movie was distributed by flagship studio MGM. Big stars like Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn make cameos. So if there isn’t some implicit rebuke of excessive MeToo-era moral strictures — then they went to weirdly great lengths to make it appear that way.
Continuing the theme of unexpected movie reviews, I think Don’t Look Up on Netflix can only be authentically enjoyed if you ignore the central allegory that critics have correctly said was extremely heavy-handed. Because the allegory was supposed to be extremely heavy-handed. That was the entire point of the movie, according to director Adam McKay, who has repeatedly declared, “It’s a climate change allegory, it’s a climate crisis allegory.”
So I recommend just disregarding the intentionally heavy-handed allegory, because apart from that, the movie is enjoyable if only for its over-the-top absurdism. Society being totally unconcerned and oblivious to a civilization-destroying comet hurtling toward Earth is a funny premise, and it leads to some funny situations, especially given the exaggerated superficiality of the comet-denying characters. I thought Jennifer Lawrence, the earnest comet-discoverer trying in vain to alert the world of imminent catastrophe — only to be made into a mockable internet meme — was especially good.
But the in-your-face allegory doesn’t really hold up, because it isn’t remotely plausible that Americans, however distracted they are with celebrity gossip and their smartphones, would simply not “look up” to view a comet that was conclusively demonstrated to be coming in six months to wipe out the planet. The idea that such a scenario is meaningfully “allegorical” with the purported threat of climate change is way too overwrought. For one thing, the solution to avert the looming catastrophe in the movie, while complex operationally, is conceptually straightforward: launch a military mission to destroy or otherwise ward off the comet. The solution to averting climate change is… not quite as conceptually straightforward. And if you think it is, that’s probably a reflection of your own ideological zeal.
McKay says the movie arose from his frustration that climate change “is without a doubt the biggest threat to life in history,” and yet is not treated that way by the media and politicians, who are obsessed with meaningless trivia instead. It’s reasonable to observe that lots of people, including those in positions of power, are obsessed with meaningless trivia. But the complete, unwavering certainty evinced by McKay is part of what makes the movie’s allegory so dubious.
First of all: really? So if you happen to think that nuclear war is the biggest threat currently faced by humanity, McKay is “without a doubt” sure that you’re wrong? Speaking of historical threats to life, you do know that on numerous occasions in very recent history, the United States and the Soviet Union were on the cusp of annihilating each other — right? And that even today, nuclear-armed states continue building up their mass-destruction arsenals, which in the event of some geopolitical incident could bring unfathomable destruction to the planet — exponentially faster than climate change ever purportedly could? A bonafide nuclear exchange would be over in a matter of minutes. Rises in sea levels, on the other hand, are measured in decades/centuries...
The allegory is heavy-handed because McKay’s doubt-free conviction is itself so heavy-handed. His conceit is that no one of sound mind could possibly dispute his central thesis, and that we’d all come to this realization if we simply followed the injunction to “Listen to Scientists” — which is the phrase actually being used by Netflix in promotional material. Yeah, that slogan really seems to be working wonders at the moment!
I’m not denying that there could be a threat posed by drastic changes in the climate, but I am denying the idea that if you “doubt” Adam McKay’s interpretation of this issue in any respect, you’re as ludicrously oblivious as the people who wouldn’t “look up” to see that a comet was careening directly into Earth. Doesn’t seem like the most apt comparison!
Perhaps it’s also possible that Adam McKay’s threat assessments in general are not the infallible word of God. Talking to an interviewer recently, he said: “I’ve heard a lot of people say [the movie] resonates with the trouble that American democracy is in, as we sort of stare down the barrel of — three years, democracy could be over.” Hmm, another interesting theory, but one that seems to have a lot of vagaries associated with it, and which could benefit from a fulsome debate wherein we don’t automatically assume that Adam McKay’s doom-inducing “democracy” prognosis is accurate. Maybe the one-time Anchorman director’s conception of what constitutes an urgent civilization-destroying threat shouldn’t necessarily be taken as objective, unalterable fact? In that sense, the movie falls flat as a grandiose political entreaty. It’s still entertaining though, so that’s good.