‘Licorice Pizza’ shows us what makes Jews – and Haim – unique – J.
This piece first appeared in Before.
Thanks to Paul Thomas Anderson, we can now glimpse the Haim family Shabbat dinners.
At the start of “Licorice Pizza”, Anderson’s picaresque romance, which debuted in theaters last week, Alana (Alana Haim), her two sisters Danielle (Danielle Haim) and Este (Este Haim) and her real parents ( Moti and Donna Haim) take their seats for challah and wine. Until this point in the film, there was little indication of Alana’s religious affiliation. At the end of the meal, we know she is Jewish. Kosher? Secular? Shul going? These accolades crumble after boyfriend Lance (Skyler Gisondo) refuses to say hamotzi.
“I respectfully decline,” Lance, who is Jewish, tells Moti. “My personal journey has led me to atheism.
This remark is funny because it is heard by young people at Shabbat tables around the world. It is also a point largely irrelevant to much of Jewish practice. But explaining all the nuances of an ethnoreligion where faith is not a prerequisite for identity could take quite a movie. Anderson does it – rather crudely – in seconds.
Alana follows Lance outside and, over there on the street, asks to know, “What does your penis look like?”
Lance is bewildered, though perhaps a little curious as to where that line of questioning might lead. When he flounders a little in front of an answer, Alana is more direct: “Is it circumcised?”
“So you are af-ing Jew!” Alana yells.
It is reductive, of course. But it contains a kernel of truth. One does not simply withdraw from this congenital affiliation. Of course, if you are a Jew who converts to another religion, that is another matter, and the Jews by choice were with us at Sinai. But in Lance’s case, this flexible but rigid formulation – a Jew, compelled to do Jewish things regardless of his beliefs – applies. He is, whatever his objections, a Jew. And Alana too.
“Licorice Pizza,” which stars Cooper Hoffman as Alana’s 15-year-old sweetheart (she’s 25 in the movie) nails the valley vibe of the 1970s, bringing Anderson back to the land of “Boogie Nights”. It is also, to date, Anderson’s most Jewish film, fascinated by how Haim’s actual past might inform his character. Anderson, who has led Haim’s eponymous actor group in the past and was a art student of their mother, Donna, does not just do an ethnography in the car. He understands how Jewishness has been commodified by Hollywood and remains a major source of insecurity, especially among young women.
After the Shabbat scene, Hoffman’s Gary Valentine (based on teenager Gary Goetzman, who grew up to be Tom Hanks’ production partner) takes Alana to meet an agent to see her prospects as an actor. The agent immediately notices Alana’s “Jewish nose, which is becoming very fashionable”. When asked to list special skills, Alana said her Israeli father taught her Krav Maga, or, as the agent calls him, “Quickdraw McGraw.” The agent couldn’t be less interested to learn that Alana knows Hebrew.
Alana’s “fashionable” nose can perhaps be attributed to Barbra Steisand, whose former beau, a psychotic Jon Peters, appears as a character in the film, played by Bradley Cooper. Cooper remake of “A Star is Born” produced by Peters, which starred Streisand; both films are quite shy about the shape of the nose. Even though they are fashionable, Alana and Streisand’s noses are identified as Jewish, and therefore limiting. The agent’s remark seems to cast doubt on Alana – or just assert something she already knows.
In a later scene, Alana wonders if she can play a hippie guitarist named “Rainbow” from Intercourse, PA. “I’m Jewish,” she explains to her potential partner.
It’s a strange moment that I still think about. Alana, who reduced Jewishness to a physical trait, and had hers in turn reduced, wonders about the limits of what Jews can do and who they are. Of course, she knows they can be atheists. She doesn’t mind taking on the role of a Jewess in a bikini selling waterbeds. But playing a hippie from rural Pennsylvania? She can’t imagine it. Or maybe, knowing her own story, she just doesn’t care.
One of the only things that seems to explain Alana’s motivation is her resistance to falling into what is prescribed and expected of her. But when she is offered a non-Jewish role, it makes her think. And when an officer classifies her as Jewish, she doesn’t question it. This is who she is.
No wonder, then, that she takes Lance to task, despite her own rebellions and reinventions. His “personal path” is just as winding as his, but Jewishness has always been a part of it. It is not a destination, but a map to guide you, even in dead ends.