Red Rocket's Mikey is going through a bit of a dry patch in his career as a pornstar, which makes starting the next chapter in his life rather difficult; in Texas City, no one will give him a job, once they discover his lack of work history and his sordid past. Red Rocket also happens to be set during the political background of the 2016 election cycle, as the film subtly highlights Mikey watching Trump's campaign speech leading up to the big day. The film doesn't hold back in implying the best kind of voyeurism and self sabotaging personality its protagonist has; Mikey is a white guy who lies constantly, claims to be a lot richer than he is and goes around gaslighting women. He pines for power but lives in a state of grievance, an outright fantasy that instead of becoming merely an object of moral repugnance, makes his character all the more interesting.
Paul Thomas Anderson's Licorice Pizza, on the other hand, is set in 1973 around San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a 15-year-old child actor who meets and falls in love with Alana (Alana Haim), a photographer's assistant on his school picture day. It's suggested that her age is 25, though it's never really confirmed. The film has a certain air of exuberance, distinct from the majority of films that cash into the 70s and 80s pop culture nostalgia; this one is about an older person thoughtfully meditating on a younger one's life, during a time when the American sociopolitical space was rapidly shifting.
Both Sean Baker and PTA have proven their knack for being the visual cultural historians they are, which reflects the way in which they handle the rich political context in their filmography. The craft on display in both the films here reflect their respective subtext, of how the political condition around one tends to nurture their very character. Both Red Rocket and Licorice Pizza offer a politically rich statement that acts more than just a backdrop their characters are painted upon. The screenplay in both the works relies on expansive, and more importantly, honest world building which doesn't lose your attention even when the pacing meanders frequently. While Mikey keeps getting perpetually drawn toward bad decisions, Gary finds himself randomly handcuffed by the police that appear out of nowhere, mistaking him for some other teenage murderer suspect.
The employment gap on Mikey's resume baffles potential employers, leading to a bunch of interview failures. While Mikey, pushing through his 50s, is unable to impress any job interviewer, Gary at his young age is desperately eager to vouch out for new business opportunities, as if he knows for sure that he otherwise won't be able to keep up with the world and time around him which constantly seems to be slipping by. Both Alana and Gary, are striving for their versions of living the 'American dream' (I crack up everytime I revisit the scene where Alana looks at Gary directly in the eye and says, "I'm a politician").
Key characters in both Red Rocket and Licorice Pizza are made aware of the political developments around them through cable news. In this way, the respective scenes of these characters watching TV in each film doesn't only become a key entry point for them — the characters — into the larger world of the film, but also an implication for us, the audience, to get a better context of what kinds of deeper themes the filmmakers are truly aiming at (the news footage of the oil crisis in America in the early 70s took on a greater meaning while watching it after the recent developments in the geopolitical space). The films want us to remember that there are always going to be inevitable consequences to terrible people making terrible choices, even when they're generally the only ones available.
Now, addressing the controversy that's garnered among the reception of both the films — the age gap between the lead characters. Mikey in Red Rocket spies an attractive, redheaded girl (Suzanna Son) at the local Donut Hole; we immediately know he's bound to pursue yet another risky endeavor. Whereas in Licorice Pizza, Alana goes out with Gary and keeps showing up while supporting his frequent business endeavors, knowing clearly that she's too old for him, yet unable to help herself. The film is littered with such deliberate provocations that remain unanswered, hence, preserving the artistic essence by staying true to the less savory aspects of history. PTA's film isn't wholly a delightful slice-of-life comedy, but it delves into the repression and anxiety that come out of the youthful struggles. It's a story based during a time when the pressures put on by 70s capitalist America crushed a lot of young dreams, while also leading many to rise above. There's a funk to both the movies that's quite ineffable in how unconcerned they seem to be with the modern sensibilities, which is superimposed onto the characters.
Both Red Rocket and Licorice Pizza feature key scenes where silence is used to build tension, and ultimately for the pay off. PTA, in an interview following the film's release, talked about how there's something extremely elemental about scenes where characters don't speak anything. That's precisely why there's something uniquely charming about that phone call exchange between Gary and Alana, a scene where the two characters don't exchange any words, just breaths. And the scene where Alana drives a moving van speeding backward in an attempt to dodge Barbra Streisand's unhinged lover (Bradley Cooper), remains the most tense I've been at a movie theater in a while.
When Mikey goes from watching Trump speeches to spending his time out cycling around the streets of conservative Texas, trying to hide where he truly lives from Strawberry, it's an affirmation of just how easy it can be to fall for the empty promises of those seeking (or seeking to retain) power. Mikey keeps going back to the young girl, because he feels like she listens to him and picks him up when he's down. Their dynamic (or relationship, if you want to call it one), is bound to fail. On the other side, there's a baseline immaturity underneath the ineffable on screen chemistry of Alana and Gary; will their romance also end into something similar?