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'Licorice Pizza' criticized for scenes involving fake Asian accent

“The film is not even about Asians or race, and what it does is normalize this violence, this casual anti-Asian racism,” one sociologist said.
Image: Licorice Pizza
 Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in "Licorice Pizza."Paul Thomas Anderson / MGM

Director Paul Thomas Anderson's "Licorice Pizza" is being criticized by some on social media for including scenes where a white businessman speaks in a fake Asian accent with his on-screen wife, who is Japanese.

The film, which rolled out in limited release over Thanksgiving weekend, is a coming-of-age comedy-drama that stars Alana Haim (of the Haim band) and Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), two young people growing up in the San Fernando Valley in California in the 1970s. It also stars Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, Tom Waits and others.

While the film has garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews and generated a ton of awards buzz, some have called out a particular part of the film that they describe as racist.

In the film, a white male restaurateur, played by John Michael Higgins, speaks to his Japanese wife with a fake Asian accent. He appears again in the film with another Japanese woman, his new wife, and he repeats the attempted gag.

In a review from Slate, critic Dana Stevens described the film as a "blast" to watch. But she had one line noting the scene as a miss: "Not every attempt to ground 'Licorice Pizza' in a de-nostalgized past bears fruit. A running gag about a white restaurant owner with a series of interchangeable Japanese wives seems meant as a joke about the character’s racism, but the joke lands gracelessly."

Some people on social media echoed similar sentiments.

One TikTok user shared she was so disturbed by the scene she had to "literally leave the theater because it was so deeply upsetting," advocating for others to not watch the film. That clip has been garnered more than 250,000 views.

And on Twitter, David Chen, host of a podcast called Culturally Relevant, wrote: "Picture this: You're watching LICORICE PIZZA. It's brilliant. Then, early on, a buffoonish character drops an Asian caricature. The (mostly white) audience laughs. And now you gotta think about that laughter the rest of the film."

Karen Maine, a director and screenwriter, shared a similar perspective.

"There’s an incredibly racist, seemingly pointless (other than a cheap laugh, which it got at the screening I was at) scene that mocks Asian accents," Maine wrote in a tweet.

Chen and Maine did not immediately respond to an NBC News request for comment.

In August, a study of Asian American representation in the entertainment industry found that audiences are asked to laugh at nearly half of Asian and Pacific Islander roles.

The study — which was conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment and Gold House — reviewed the top 10 grossing films each year from 2010 to 2019. The analysis showed that while less than a quarter of the API characters were comedic themselves, audiences were asked to laugh at almost half of them.

Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist, said criticism of Higgins’ character appears to be warranted because there is no clear pushback against his character in the film.

“It’s irresponsible to use racism against Asians as a running gag,” Yuen said.

Though she hadn't seen the film yet at the time of the interview, she noted it’s apparent that the plot is "not even about Asians or race, and what it does is normalize this violence, this casual anti-Asian racism."

“Racist stereotypes like the accent are a cheap way of getting laughs because you don’t need to explain anything — even though there is nothing funny about accents,” Yuen said.

She explained it was “concerning,” particularly given the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic. Anti-Asian hate crimes increased more than 73 percent in 2020, according to corrected FBI data released last month. That number was a disproportionate uptick compared to hate crimes in general, which rose 13 percent.

“This kind of representation gives permission for others to behave this way towards Asians, and it rehashes this trope of Asians as the perpetual foreigner — a trope that has been part of our society since the 1800s,” Yuen said.

Culture writer Jourdain Searles said the Asian jokes in the film "don't work," adding that criticism of the racist scene and praise for the movie aren't mutually exclusive.

"you can defend the movie while acknowledging that fact," she tweeted. "it does no good to pretend those moments work when they don’t. sometimes you love a movie and it has something f---ed up in it. that’s normal. be honest."

Both Maine and Chen said on Twitter they liked the film. But those scenes, for them, overshadowed the beauty of the film itself.

"The whole Haim family and Bradley Cooper were my fave parts," Maine wrote in a follow-up tweet. "But that pointless, racist scene ruined the whole film for me, and more people need to call PT out on it."

Chen described the film as "otherwise excellent."

"But the heartbreaking thing is me imagining an alternate version of this movie," he wrote, noting that the scenes mocking the Asian accent "added virtually nothing to it."

A representative for Higgins and Anderson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

However, in a November interview with The New York Times, Anderson addressed the criticism. In the conversation, the Times journalist said the accent was "so offensive that my audience actually gasped."

The filmmaker responded: "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. 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."

While Anderson acknowledged it was a "period" piece, Yuen said the scenes still depict racism "unfiltered."

"If there are no consequences, scenes like this can almost glorify this behavior," she said. "You're not laughing at [Higgins' character] because he's making fun of someone else; you’re either laughing with him at the expense of Asians, or you're going to be upset as a viewer."