‘Licorice Pizza’ Faces Backlash for ‘Buffoonish’ Asian Accent

While the reviews have been positive, some critics are calling out the film for insensitivity

Photo: MGM

It’s not awards season without a controversy or two.

One of the first awards season brouhahas is upon us. The movie in question is Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” (currently sporting a near-perfect 90 on Metacritic), which some find quite sour, thanks to a pair of scenes with a goofball restaurant owner (played by Christopher Guest regular John Michael Higgins) who speaks to his Japanese wives in a caricatured faux Japanese accent.

Several people on Twitter have brought up the accent, including podcaster David Chen, critic Walter Chaw (when comparing “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” to “Licorice Pizza”), and filmmaker Karen Maine. They are among a growing number calling out the film for insensitivity.

Even reviews that are positive make note of the issue, like the one by Vulture’s Alison Willmore, who wrote: “The narrative cul-de-sacs these exploits lead to are mostly wonderful, save for the appearance of John Michael Higgins as a racist Japanese restaurant owner — the kind of joke whose butt is obvious but that results in laughter that’s less precise in its target.” Willmore pinpoints what makes the scenes so weird – Anderson is clearly making fun of Higgins’ character and his buffoonish behavior, but the scenes are staged to where you are laughing with him.

Kyle Buchanan of The New York Times brought this up with Anderson in an interview published earlier this week. Anderson rebuffed the concern. (Buchanan told Anderson that his audience was so uncomfortable they “actually gasp.”) “I think it would be a mistake to tell a period film through the eyes of 2021. You can’t have a crystal ball, you have to be honest to that time. Not that it wouldn’t happen right now, by the way,” Anderson told the Times. “My mother-in-law’s Japanese and my father-in-law is white, so seeing people speak English to her with a Japanese accent is something that happens all the time. I don’t think they even know they’re doing it.” Hmmm.

It’s unclear if the controversy will diminish the movie’s end-of-year prospects, as it is a major awards hopeful, or if this will breeze by most moviegoers.

Anderson’s film is a loose hodgepodge of Hollywood lore, real-life character details and fabrication. Without giving anything away (the film just opened in limited release), there are several larger-than-life characters who are given even larger, more cartoony personas.

“Licorice Pizza,” starring Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper and Benny Safdie, just opened in limited release and will be out everywhere on Christmas day.