I’d planned to feature this movie three weeks ago when it would have been more seasonally apropos, but sometimes Netflix disks malfunction and you just have to deal with it. It’s technically still Fall though, so I ask you to hold off on your holiday mood for a moment (I promise a more seasonally appropriate film next week, barring any Netflix complications) while you celebrate the last of the fallen leaves with a 1980s classic, Mystic Pizza.
Mystic Pizza is one of the few coming of age stories about women, and despite being a “chick flick” (god I’m sick of that label) it doesn’t follow the typical formula. Although many critics falsely state that Mystic Pizza is about three high school girls, or three girls who’ve just graduated from high school, it actually takes place during that limbo period after high school, in your late teens and early twenties, where you’re trying to figure out your place in the world as an adult.
The story centers on three women in the port town of Mystic Connecticut where they work at a pizza parlor known for it’s mysteriously delicious sauce and owned by mother figure Leona (Conchata Ferrell). Daisy Arujo (Julia Roberts) is a free spirit, she is sexy and sassy and looking for a way out of Mystic, any way she can. Her younger sister Kat (Annabeth Gish) is slinging pizzas to save money for tuition at Yale, where she has recently been accepted. Kat is bookish and lacks the big hair and chunky jewelry of her peers—that’s how you know she’s smart. She also likes astronomy and wears pleated pants. Jojo Barboza (Lili Taylor), is practically a third sister, and just as confused about her future as Daisy, especially after fainting at her wedding, much to the surprise of her fiancée (Vincent D’Onofrio).
The three girls, and most of the town, are Portuguese, which plays largely into the story. During the off-season Mystic is blissfully free of the wealthy folks who “summer” in the quaint seaside town. So when Charles Gordon Windsor, Jr. (Adam Storke) shows up at a local bar having been exiled to his parents beach house after getting kicked out of law school, Daisy can’t help but take notice. The two then embark on a whirlwind romance, despite the hindrance of their economic and class differences. The relationship is a far more convincing portrayal of cross-class love than has been explored in other films (ahem, Pretty in Pink, ahem).
At the same time, Kat finds herself in a seemingly doomed relationship of her own. In an effort to score more tuition money she takes a babysitting job watching the child of Yale-educated, ginger-haired architect Tim Travers (William R. Moses). From the minute he steps on-screen you know this pairing is a bad idea, but Kat is naive enough to think a babysitter-employer romance can turn out well. Although it’s a clichéd situation, it is acted with such conviction by Gish that your heart goes out to her. After all, the reason clichés exist is because they happen often in real life. Everyone likes to think they’re the exception, but rarely is it true. It’s an incredibly common disappointment which requires a willing blindness that so many of us have been guilty of—but it’s learning from our mistakes and experiences which signifies a coming-of-age.
Unlike the others, Jojo and her fisherman fiancée Bill’s relationship, is a cliché turned on its head. Jojo loves Bill but would rather have sex than talk about marriage. When Bill renames his boat “nympho” after her, Jojo screams at him from the dock “you can’t force me to do something I’m not ready to do…and until I am, if I am, the answer is NO!”. It’s an empowering moment, and one that should be equally noted by men who are hesitant to walk down the aisle. Forcing anyone to get married is a bad idea, and if it comes to that, it’s probably best that both parties step back and think about what they’re willing to compromise for the happiness of the person they love, sometimes it’s worth the compromise, and sometimes it’s not—yet another major life lesson thrown into this atypical “chick flick”.
Based on the reviews on IMDB (an fascinating way to see how differently people see the world) a lot of men seem utterly confused by Jojo’s character, as if the idea of a woman who didn’t want to get married but wanted to have sex was entirely fictional. What that says to me is that some men really don’t know women at all, maybe that’s why we keep getting the same tired “chick flicks”. It’s also pretty enlightened that, despite being called a nympho by her fiancée, Jojo isn’t slut-shamed, or made into a caricature of a sex-crazed women (à la Samantha in SATC).
I have to point out Matt Damon’s brief film debut in which he plays a preppy rich kid by the name of “steamer” whose only line is “mom, do you want my green stuff?”. When Roger Ebert reviewed this film in 1988, he said “I have a feeling that “Mystic Pizza” may someday become known for the movie stars it showcased back before they became stars”. I don’t think he was talking about Matt Damon, but Ebert was correct in predicting a lot of big talent would get its start in this film. Obviously Julia Roberts, but also Lili Taylor, Vincent D’Onofrio and even the lesser known Gish (who has continued to work steadily) got their first leading roles in this film.
While Mystic Pizza might not be the most unpredictable or solidly written film, it has endured because of its honesty, which at times may seem saccharine (youth is often sweet as well as sour though isn’t it?). For a lighthearted romantic film, it deals with some big issues; racism, classism, sex, friendship, and figuring out who you are and who you want to be with. If the acting weren’t so earnest, if the clichés weren’t present, the story wouldn’t ring as true, because the most charming part of the film is its smallness. It sucks that when this movie is mentioned it’s emphasized that the characters are blue-collar, hard workers, blah, blah, blah, because what does that say about most films out there? Everyone is inexplicably rich, and how they came to be that way is casually thrown aside (especially in the “chick flick” genre). It’s sad that we don’t see more films about people like the rest of us, because there are just as many interesting stories to be told about everyday people living and working through their “little” lives.