‘Licorice Pizza’ shows us what makes Jews and Haim unique J. – The Jewish News of Northern California

Posted By on December 30, 2021

This piece first appeared in the Forward.

Thanks to Paul Thomas Anderson, we can now glimpse the Haim familys Shabbat dinners.

Early on in Licorice Pizza, Andersons picaresque age-gap romance, which opened in theaters last week, Alana (Alana Haim), her two sisters Danielle (Danielle Haim) and Este (Este Haim) and her actual parents (Moti and Donna Haim) take their seats for some challah and wine. Until this point in the film there was little indication as to Alanas religious affiliation. By the end of the meal, we know shes Jewish. Kosher? Secular? Shul-going? These distinctions collapse after her boyfriend Lance (Skyler Gisondo) declines to say hamotzi.

I respectfully refuse, Lance, who is Jewish, tells Moti. My personal path has led me to atheism.

This remark is funny because its one heard from young people at Shabbat tables the world over. Its also a largely irrelevant point for much of Jewish practice. But explaining all the nuances of an ethnoreligion where faith is no prerequisite for identity could take an entire film. Anderson does it rather crassly in a few seconds.

Alana follows Lance outside and, there on the street, demands to know: What does your penis look like?

Lance is taken aback, if perhaps a bit curious as to where this line of questioning might lead. When he flounders a bit at a response, Alana is more direct: Is it circumcised?

It is.

Then youre a fing Jew! Alana screams.

Its reductive, certainly. But it holds a kernel of truth. One does not simply opt out of this congenital affiliation. Of course, if youre a Jew who converts to another faith, thats another matter, and Jews by choice were with us at Sinai. But in the case of Lance this flexible yet rigid formulation a Jew, obliged to do Jewish things regardless of belief applies. He is, no matter what his objections may be, a Jew. And so is Alana.

Licorice Pizza, which co-stars Cooper Hoffman as Alanas 15-year-old love interest (shes 25 in the film) nails the Valley vibe of the 1970s, returning Anderson to Boogie Nights territory. It is also, to date, Andersons most Jewish film, fascinated by the ways Haims real-life background might inform her character. Anderson, who directed Haims eponymous sister act band in the past and was anart student of their mother, Donna, is not just doing a drive-by ethnography. He understands how Jewishness has been commodified by Hollywood and remains a major source of insecurity, particularly among young women.

After the Shabbat scene, Hoffmans Gary Valentine (based on the teenage Gary Goetzman, who grew up to be Tom Hanks producing partner) takes Alana to meet an agent to see about her prospects as an actor. The agent immediately remarks on Alanas Jewish nose, which is becoming very fashionable. When asked to list special skills, Alana says her Israeli father taught her Krav Maga, or, as the agent calls it, Quickdraw McGraw. The agent could not be less interested to learn that Alana knows Hebrew.

Alanas fashionable nose can perhaps be traced to Barbra Steisand, whose onetime beau, a psychotic Jon Peters, appears as a character in the film, played by Bradley Cooper. Cooper remade the remake of the Peters-produced A Star is Born, which starred Streisand; both films are quite self-conscious when it comes to nose shape. Even if they are in vogue, Alana and Streisands noses are identified as Jewish, and therefore, limiting. The agents remark seems to plant a seed of doubt for Alana or just affirm something she already knows.

In a later scene Alana wonders whether she can play a guitar-playing hippie named Rainbow from Intercourse, PA. Im Jewish, she reasons to her potential costar.

Its a strange moment Im still thinking about. Alana, who has reduced Jewishness to a physical trait, and has had hers reduced in turn, wonders at the limits of what Jews can do and who they are. Of course she knows they can be atheists. She doesnt scoff at taking on the role of a Jew in a bikini selling waterbeds. But playing a hippie from rural Pennsylvania? She cant imagine it. Or maybe, knowing her own history, she just doesnt care to.

One of the only things that seems to spell out Alanas motivation is a resistance to falling into what is prescribed for and expected of her. But when shes offered a non-Jewish role, it gives her pause. And when an agent typecasts her as Jewish, she doesnt question it. Its who she is.

Its no wonder then that shed take Lance to task, despite her own rebellions and reinventions. Her personal path is just as meandering as his is, but Jewishness was always a part of it. Its not a destination, but a map to guide the way even down dead ends.

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'Licorice Pizza' shows us what makes Jews and Haim unique J. - The Jewish News of Northern California

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