‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’ is no ‘Licorice Pizza’
The year 1973, one of the grimmest in modern American history, gets a nostalgic gloss in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Licorice Pizza.’ Vietnam was nearing its tragic endgame, as was the Nixon Presidency. Fashion, music, and culture were at a low ebb. Yet Licorice Pizza imbues that time with a kind of youthful optimism, of waterbeds, rotary phones, and analog pinball. No one seems to mind the staggering economy. Anderson deploys the OPEC embargo-caused gasoline shortage mostly for laughs, when it reality it inconvenienced almost everyone and ruined lives and businesses.
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Licorice Pizza is a charming, picaresque delight, and it no more accurately depicts 1973 than American Graffiti depicts the 1950s. The cars, clothes, music, and youth vibe are right on. But the movie is fantasy, not reality.
If you want to see what 1973 was really like, look at a non-period movie that came out that year, any movie, really. The cars weren’t cool and retro. They were what was available at the time. Same with the clothes, and the exterior shots. And for that dose of reality, you can’t get any realer than the Robert Mitchum noir melodrama ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle,’ sitting right there on the Criterion Collection app for you to enjoy at any time.
‘Eddie Coyle,’ set in white, working-class Boston, depicts 1973 as gritty, ugly, and claustrophobic. Houses and businesses are decaying, government buildings are cold and brutalist. While Gary Valentine, the 15-year-old protagonist of Licorice Pizza, has a standing reservation at a San Fernando Valley steak joint, Robert Mitchum’s 51-year-old character spends his days sucking coffee and eating buns at lousy Southie diners, downing shots of whiskey at unthemed bars. Gary jets off to New York on a business trip. Mitchum’s working-class Irish wife keeps the Fruit Loops on a shelf over the stove.
The two movies don’t have a lot in common on the surface. Eddie Coyle is a classic noir story of heists and double-crosses, taking its time building tension, with long scenes of bank tellers unlocking vaults and guys waiting in their cars to meet their marks. Licorice Pizza has its own capers, but they’re gauzy, episodic, and optimistic. It has a happy ending, whereas Mitchum’s Eddie Coyle meets one of the most pathetic and undignified ends in movie history.
And it’s not as though Licorice Pizza overplays its privilege. Bradley Cooper’s Jon Peters lives in a typical Hollywood mansion in the hills, but Gary lives among wood paneling in the flats and appears to be raising his little brother by himself. Even though Alana’s father is clearly a successful real-estate broker, his three grown daughters still live with him in a modest house. That’s just how most people lived back then, without much pretension to vaulted-ceiling comfort.
But there’s a big difference in time and perspective. A movie that came out in the actual 1973 couldn’t possibly see the new Gilded Age that awaited America. As far as Eddie Coyle is concerned, the only people who can come out on top are the rats and the stoolies. The world is a sludge pit. Whereas for the good people of Licorice Pizza, all that awaits are endless decades of cocaine and sunshine.
Watch these movies back to back, like I did, and you’ll see. You’ll find yourself longing for 1973 while marveling at how inexpensive everything was. But mostly you’ll be amazed at how shitty everything, and everyone, looked. When it comes to movies, 1973 is a nice place to visit. But you really wouldn’t want to live there.