Something about myself I know to be true: when it comes to crafted forms of entertainment like movies or music I am much more inclined to want to discuss things I struggled with enjoying (or outright disliked) than things I loved. Generally when I see a movie which I think is great I don’t have much to say beyond “It’s wonderful. Go see it!” Great things speak for themselves. When I *don’t* love something however, well my analytical brain won’t let it go until I can adequately explain *why*. I went on a furious tirade against the last Indiana Jones movie just because it irked me so much that I wanted to make sure I had my thoughts in writing, lest I need to defend my dislike at a later date. This is who I am.
Which brings me to La La Land. In my yearly attempt to see all the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars are actually handed out I finally got around to seeing the film last night. Now I will admit up front that at no point since the trailer started airing did La La Land ever strike me as the kind of film I necessarily wanted/needed to see. I am not its target audience. But that right there is problem number one I had with the film’s Oscar nomination: I’m of the belief that truly great films transcend the idea of the target audience. If it is one of the 5-10 best films of the year it shouldn’t just appeal to a certain sect of moviegoers. I would say that a movie about a couple of rough n’ tumble cowboys who unexpectedly decide that they’re super gay for each other wouldn’t fall within my normal wheelhouse, but that didn’t stop me from thinking Brokeback Mountain was a brilliant film. Greatness overcomes genre and in my opinion La La Land failed to do that.
So where did it go wrong for me? Well first let me address some obvious things in relation to the “target audience” point I made earlier. Although a theater guy I am not necessarily a musicals guy. I have come to appreciate the form over the years as I have been exposed to more and more musical theater, but I will never be someone who loves musicals. So I’m not going to hammer the film too hard on the musical aspects of it. To my lame ear both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were merely fine as vocalists. The songs they sung were low and slow and I don’t think played to either one of their strengths, but I can’t say as though that aspect really contributed to me not enjoying the movie. The songs didn’t do much for me either, though again they didn’t detract in the sense that I thought they were bad. I just don’t feel they added anything. The two exceptions were the pop-jazz number that The Messengers performed – and I feel like that would have worked in a straight film telling the exact same story because it wasn’t part of the “musical” storytelling trope, it was part of the actual story – and the audition piece that Mia performed near the end, which came as close to packing an emotional punch for me as anything else in the film. Could they have found better vocalists? Probably, but I don’t think the singing hurt the film.
The dancing seemed very well done and if I had a critique it’s that I felt too much of it was just there to say, “See! They’re both very talented!” without adding to the story. I read a review after I got home from seeing the film (something I frequently do) and the reviewer – admittedly a big fan of old school Hollywood musicals – praised the use of dance in place of dialogue as a way of having the characters communicate. I’d agree with that if I felt the dancing said something, but in the big numbers featuring Gosling and Stone they seemed to do mostly synchronized steps, which didn’t tell me anything about their relationship. They felt like interludes. Gosling in particular seemed to approach the dancing without much joy, hitting all the moves but not putting anything into them. It was graceful sure, but if you’re trying to show me two people falling for each other I want more urgency, more playfulness.
Which brings me to perhaps the most frustrating aspect of La La Land: the structure. The movie begins with a massive dance number taking place in the midst of a traffic jam on an LA freeway. It’s beautifully shot and performed and as it was unfolding I thought, “Damn, that was almost all one continuous shot. I bet that was a bitch to coordinate.” That’s a problem to me, because that should not be my takeaway upon first viewing. I’m reminded of three other extended sequences in films that I think are brilliant in similar ways: the party scene in Boogie Nights, the beach landing in Saving Private Ryan, and the ambush scene in Children Of Men. I have gone back and watched all of those movies several times since and in viewing those scenes I am fascinated by how they were pulled off, but when I saw each in the theater it never occurred to me that they were mostly single shots. I was engrossed in the moment and what was happening, not how it was done. For the La La Land opening I had nothing else to notice, because there was no story yet. Instead it was just a big “here’s a really elaborate song and dance number signifying nothing!” I have seen enough stage musicals to be able to identify two distinct types: one is the fantastical kind where everything is song and dance because that’s the way of the world they inhabit. This opening freeway scene, as well as the two party scenes that follow it, seem to fit into that world. Everybody in the scene is a part of this giant elaborate number, so in that sense it’s not weird. It’s just part of the structure of that world. However…
Once we meet Sebastian and Mia the move shifts completely in tone, at least in regard to the use of music and dance. There are no more large group numbers for the rest of the film. Instead the use of song and dance by the two main characters falls into the second type of musical that I have identified: the altered reality type where otherwise normal people reach an emotional point in the story where the only way to express themselves is through song. Director Damien Chazelle seemed to get this because whenever we got to one of those points (Mia’s audition being a prime example) there was a distinct, dramatic, and intentional shift in lighting to let us know “this part of the story is sort of happening in the character’s head”. The use of both of those forms of musical storytelling within the same script really frustrated me, because I couldn’t tell what I was supposed to be watching. As a direct result the movie kept pulling me in and out of its narrative as it unfolded and that is generally a kiss of death with me. The structure of a film should never be a hindrance to the story. (For the record I had similar structure issues with Jackie and Nocturnal Animals, so this isn’t completely me speaking out of my ass.)
As for the script itself, again I had problems, and they are not insignificant even though it may seem like nitpicking. For starters, this is not an original idea: two young dreamers meet in Hollywood, fall quickly in love, struggle with reaching their goals which puts a strain on the relationship, one of them gets their big break. That’s a pretty basic plotline for a Hollywood movie and it’s usually only the ending that adds some new twist. I don’t point that out to slam the film, but rather to highlight that they aren’t telling a particularly noteworthy story in and of itself, so the key to success will be the actual journey. How these two meet, how they fall in love, and how the relationship begins to fall apart are the key elements to getting us to invest. Gosling and Stone have decent chemistry, so that helped, but I still need the specific story points. So how exactly did the script fail them? Let me point a couple of key moments – some big, some small – that had me scratching my head.
Excluding their exchange of non-verbal hostilities on the freeway, the couple meet when Mia overhears Sebastian playing in a piano lounge and is compelled by his playing to go inside and find out just who that is. A wonderful idea except for the fact that they go through great pains in the following scenes to make it clear that Mia doesn’t care for and has no appreciation for the kind of jazz that Sebastian was playing. So why did she go in? If it was something inexplicable that drew her into that club then she needs to mention that at some point in the film. That needs to be addressed. It never was. She goes into the club and seeks him out because she’s clearly feeling something even before she sees that it’s a hot young guy playing, and yet we never get an explanation why. A simple line or two when they’re hanging at another club a few scenes later about how she doesn’t know why but something pulled her into that club would have sufficed. Meanwhile he treats her rudely at their first meeting and somehow she’s smitten enough with him to pursue him when their paths next cross. Ten minutes into the film and I have no idea why I’m supposed to ever care that these two are destined to be together. Not a good start.
My second big script issue is the mysterious “Greg” problem. From the opening scenes of the movie when we meet Mia and get to know her and her singing/dancing roommates we are given the distinct impression of a single young lady who is looking for something a little more real than her star-gawking galpals. Then she meets Sebastian, and despite the awkward beginning to their relationship, it becomes quite clear she’s into him and makes no attempt to hide it. The even make a date to go see a movie. Then out of nowhere Mia gets a phone call in his presence and apologizes to “Greg” for being late before taking off. Next thing we know she’s blowing off their movie date because it turns out she was having dinner with “Greg”, who oh by the way, is her boyfriend of at least a month. What? The? Fuck? I can’t help but think Greg was attached to this screenplay with a rivet gun during some last minute re-write where somebody felt it would help Mia’s character to show her realizing she should be with the dreamy jazz musician rather than the globe hopping whateverhewas, Greg. Problem is that we never knew Greg existed before then, NOR did they ever present Mia as the kind of girl who would have fallen for a shallow Ken Doll to begin with. The entire sequence existed just so they could have her make a cute exit from dinner with Greg to be with Sebastian. Horrible writing if you ask me.
My third beef is a nitpick so small it shouldn’t be mentioned but which I’m bringing up because, small as it is, it STILL drove me crazy the moment it happened and continued to bother me for a while after. In a scene where Mia is prepping to throw in the towel on her one-woman show before it even opens, she gives the standard “what if people hate it?” speech that all aspiring artists give. Sebastian’s reply is “Fuck ’em then”, to which Mia responds with, “You always say that”. Thing is – HE LITERALLY NEVER SAID THAT PRIOT TO THAT POINT IN THE FILM! In fact at no point up till then have we seen anything from Sebastian that implies “fuck ’em then” is his standard attitude. You could argue that his frustration over the slow death of jazz is due to his unwillingness to say “fuck ’em then” to people who don’t “get” what he does. He’s bothered by it, not dismissive of it. So yeah, I’m bothered by one line of dialogue, but that’s because it’s the payoff to a set-up that never happened and which contradicts an already established characteristic. It’s bad writing, plain and simple.
My final screenplay gripe involves what is – ironically – my favorite scene in the movie, the surprise dinner turned argument between Sabastian and Mia where she expresses her frustration about him being away and on the road and he claims to only be doing what she asked him to do. The big problem here is that we never had a scene where she asked him to do that. As Darlene pointed out to me when we were discussing the issue post viewing, you could say he inferred that attitude from her when he overheard her talking to her mom on the phone about how “he’ll get a job soon”. Point taken, but not conceded, because if that was the case then we absolutely need a moment in the argument where she calls him on that and says, “What? I never told you to I wanted you to have a steady job in place of trying to reach your dream.” Instead she never disputed his point, even while we knew she disagreed with it. The entire crux of their relationship falling apart is based on a miscommunication that neither one seems willing to address even though it’s right there in front of them. To me that strains credibility too far. I get that in the heat of the moment we can sometimes miss crucial things that we later realize, but when the argument is as black-and-white as “you’re never here”/”because you wanted me to do this”, and the first party clearly DIDN’T “want this”, that’s not gonna go over their head no matter how heated things are. Again, the script seems intent on manufacturing meaningful little “moments” without doing the necessary legwork to set them up. And it’s not even like it would have taken much to get there. Re-write the scene where he overhears her phone call to something where she speaks directly to him but does so in a way that we can see how he would have misinterpreted her intentions and off we go. It’s basic storytelling.
I did not hate La La Land. I went into it with mid-level expectations because I knew the material wasn’t the kind of thing I was predispositioned to love, but I also went in hoping to be surprised. What I got was sort of what I expected. It was a gorgeous looking film and I could totally see it taking Oscars for Production Design and Cinematography. I have to pin some of the structure issues on the director, but I can still see how he got the nomination he did. I really enjoyed Emma Stone in this film too, which is interesting to note because I wasn’t overwhelmed by her coming in. She totally won me over with her performance and I was continually drawn in by her amazingly (yet subtle) expressive face. There is something about her look that is just a little off and yet as the movie unfolded I found myself thinking, “Wow, she really is quite stunning to look at”, which to me is a sign of a tremendous actor. We meet people in life that we aren’t instantly attracted to but over time as their personality reveals itself we view them differently on a physical level. Mia was that kind of person to me and that’s a credit to Emma’s performance. I struggled more so with Gosling just because I think I’ve seen enough of him where he tries to play the reluctant handsome guy and it’s starting to get tiring. When he was playing with The Messengers I couldn’t quite tell what Sebastian was feeling. There were moments where he looked like he was starting to enjoy the new experimental jazz and I thought the movie would head in that direction, but in later scenes it became clear he wasn’t enjoying it. I put that on Gosling, for better or for worse. Plus, like I said earlier, his emotional commitment to the dancing (and singing) was lacking for me.
So there you go, another needlessly wordy attempt to coble my thoughts together on a piece of entertainment. Long live the blog.