Tinsel Town's Twisted Tribute to Itself
That Hollywood loves La La Land, the front-runner for Best Picture at this Sunday's Oscars, is no surprise. But 14 Oscar nominations? Really? More than Ben-Hur?
Sure, Hollywood loves movies about itself. And they love it even better when that movie tells them a flattering story about themselves—in this case, that success in Hollywood is a product of the brave struggle of inspired young artists who care only about the integrity of their vision. If you've seen many Hollywood movies lately, or ever, you know that's a bit of a stretch.
The film itself stretches the conceit even farther. Integrity of vision is precisely what La-La Land lacks, both in its approach to filmmaking and in its underlying message.
There are spoilers, eventually, in what follows, so I'll warn you early on.
The hero, Ryan Gosling's Sebastian, is a hipster obsessed with the purity of mid-20th-century Jazz. (I was wondering whether "Jazz" actually requires a capital "J," but the way Sebastian treats it, it sure does.) As with the hipsters themselves, what leaps out from the film is not its vaunted authenticity but its artificiality. It is supposed to be a tribute to the classic, mid-20th-Century Hollywood musicals, but it feels more like a grab bag of scenes borrowed at random from them.
I grew up on those musicals, by the way, so I was primed to like anything that revives the genre. But I've heard from a lot of other people who felt the same way I did. They wanted to like the film, but it just never engaged them. It has a paint-by-numbers feel: a little Astaire-and-Rogers knock-off here, a little imitation Gene Kelly there, and so on. No scene felt like it flowed naturally from the story or the chemistry between the characters (what there was of it), nor do they cohere very well into a consistent style. I suspect the filmmakers thought they were doing a kind of jazz riff on the old musicals, but the result is more of a pastiche.
The best way to understand La La Land is to realize that it's basically an adaptation of An American in Paris. It has a similar setting: young artists struggling in a city known as a center of art (Paris in the original) or entertainment (Los Angeles in this version). Similar characters: a cantankerous young auteur who is resisting an offer to sell out. (Gene Kelly was a painter; the leads of La La Land are a musician and an actress.) And a similar structure: a star-crossed romance leading up to a long dream-sequence musical number that recapitulates the plot.
But here's the thing. An American in Paris was actually kind of a mess. The romance was poorly developed, the humorous scenes with Kelly and his sidekick Oscar Levant were overly broad and manic. And it did a poor job at one of the chief challenges of a musical. This is an inherently unrealistic genre, because in real life people do not actually burst into song and dance to express themselves. So a musical has to pick an approach to the dilemma of how it transitions back and forth from real life to the song-and-dance numbers. It can just throw them straight into the middle of real life like it's no big deal and ask the audience to accept that convention. It can treat them as little fantasy interludes, or present them as dream sequences. Or it can set the action among people in show business—seasoned Vaudevillians or spunky, talented kids who say, "Hey, let's put on a show!"—so that it seems natural for them to sing and dance. For both La La Land and An American in Paris, the answer is "all of the above," and it makes for kind of a sprawling, sloppy mess.
But An American in Paris had two big things going for it: the music of George Gershwin and the dancing of Gene Kelly. Showcasing one of the best composers of the 20th Century and one of its best dancers will make up for a lot of other flaws. La La Land has no such compensations. The original music written for the film is forgettable. The worst thing I can say about it is that when I came out of the theater, the only tune I found myself humming was this one, which appears briefly in the background and is way catchier than anything Justin Hurwitz wrote for the film.
As for the singing and dancing, I used to think that when Hollywood fell short in this regard, it was because decades of neglect of the musical meant those skills were in short supply. But "Dancing with the Stars" has been on the air for twelve years now, and the average week six contestant could out-dance Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. That's part of what gives La La Land an insincere, paint-by-numbers feel. It's a song-and-dance film that doesn't seem to have much love for the actual singing and dancing, as if that's not the reason we came to see the film.
Before you write me off as a stodgy, grumpy old man—and please do send me the "Old Man Yells at Cloud" meme again, because that never gets old—I would point out that Hollywood does a pretty good job at this with the kind of musical that is actually thriving these days. The "hey, let's put on a show" genre is alive and well in the "High School Musical," "Step Up," and "Pitch Perfect" franchises. The particular style of singing and dancing isn't quite my cup of tea, because I am a stodgy, grumpy old man. For those with tastes closer to mine, I tried to think what would be the best way to make a mid-century style musical set in today's world, and what I came up with was indistinguishable from "Dancing with the Stars," which is basically a combination of the old-fashioned musical and the old-fashioned variety show, repackaged as a reality TV competition. It comes complete with all of the dramatic story lines you could want: the has-been actor fighting for a comeback; the gymnast who performs with emotionless perfection but has to learn how to open up and express herself; the megalomaniacal dancer (Maks, of course) who teams up with a sweet-natured ice skater to stage a comeback and win the elusive mirror-ball trophy; and so on.
What all of these have in common is that, like the original mid-century musicals and very much unlike La La Land, they are not ponderous about their artistic pretensions and don't aspire to be Oscar-bait.
Yet for all its pretense about art, La La Land ends up having a great deal less soul at its core, which mostly has to do with its ending.
Here's where we're going to get to the big plot spoiler.
La La Land is a romance about two struggling young performers who inspire each other to persist through low points in their careers, an experience that bonds them together—well, pretty loosely, it turns out. The film reaches its climax when Sebastian convinces Mia to come back to LA and take a meeting with a Hollywood producer that gives her The Big Offer that makes her a star. She heads off to Paris for filming—and apparently that's it. They just fall out of touch, in the day and age of cell phones and e-mail and Instagram and instant connectivity. We come back five years later, and Mia is a big star, married to somebody else and with a child who looks to be about three years old. (Do the math on that to see how quickly she moved on.) She is then surprised to discover that Sebastian is running the jazz club he wanted and has even used the logo she made for him—all of which he did without his bothering to let her know or her bothering to check. She briefly imagines what their life might have been like together—that's the musical dream sequence—but this is presented more as bittersweet than as tragic.
In short, it's just about the most unromantic ending to a romance, ever. Director Damien Chazelle explains that he did this because he wanted to make a film "that was definitely informed by these idealized visions that you get from the old Hollywood musicals, but one in which hopefully you have to question a little bit whether real life lives up." Well, there's your problem. He wanted a film that would try to steal a little of the glamour of Old Hollywood while treating its view of the world as unrealistic and over-idealized. The letdown of the ending is built into that premise.
But there's more to it than that, because there is one respect in which the characters' ending is not less than ideal, and it reveals something about the filmmakers' priorities. The actual message of the ending is that success is more important than love. You can see that by comparing this film to An American in Paris. Does Gene Kelly's painter ever get the gallery show he was hoping for? Does he become a successful artist and move out of his comically microscopic apartment? We never find out, because it's not really important. What's important is that he ends up with the girl. By contrast, in La La Land we know for certain that its lead characters end up with success in their careers. As for how their love affair ended and what broke it off, we never find out.
What a film bothers to show us is, by implication, what it regards as important. Which implies that in La La Land, success is important, but love is not. Amidst all the feel-good press for the film, I was wondering if anyone else would notice this. In The Guardian, David Cox takes up this thesis and turns it up to eleven, going so far as to diagnose Mia and Sebastian with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Well, they say to stick with what you know, and if there's anything Hollywood knows intimately, it's narcissism.
This is a tribute to Hollywood, all right, but one that inadvertently reinforces the caricature of Tinsel Town as shallow and obsessed with superficial success. And they have no idea how much they are revealing about themselves by showering it with Oscar nominations.