A disclaimer: A good number of smart, sophisticated people I respect in both critical and personal circles of my life have deeply and profoundly loved La La Land. And I can totally see why. It toe-taps and sings its intent to be a bright-colored lipstick smooch to creative champions toiling away to make real their dreams before wailing a torch song for the romantic loves often lost in that pursuit. From the toothy grin of Ryan Gosling to the raspy charm of Emma Stone, it dares you to have the gall to dislike it.
And I took that dare.
I did not like La La Land. No sir, I did not like it at all. I promise you, this is not an intentionally contrarian position. I was given a Lin-Manual Miranda pin for Christmas. I consider myself a member of the cult of “Film Is Magic.” I have loved Stone since Superbad, and champion Gosling movies that most consider nigh unwatchable—Viva la Only God Forgives!!! I consider the dearth of romantic comedies in recent years an affront to love itself. I was, in almost every respect, squarely inside the demo for whom this “throwback” musical was acutely targeted.
And I really, really didn’t like it.
The reasons start with Gosling. His character, Sebastian, is an unlikable A-hole whose myopic fascination with jazz is grating nonsense at best and “white savior” complex at its worst. We meet him as a horn-honking dick in traffic, who disapprovingly glares at Mia (Stone) after a truly great opening number wherein Los Angelinos sing and dance on top of their cars. This is the real reason why there are so many traffic jams in LA, right? Seems dangerous. They probably should stop doing that.
Of course Mia and Sebastian keep meeting. Of course they fall in love. That is expected but exceptionally irritating because Sebastian is, again, a colossal dick with exactly one interest and is a poser of the highest order. Sebastian is downtrodden because he wasn’t able to buy the jazz club he wanted to open in order to save jazz because jazz is great and nobody understands jazz and jazz is jazz and everything that isn’t jazz isn’t jazz. His fist-clenching frustration at not owning a business in his late 20s or early 30s betrays the profound entitlement that permeates the entire message of the movie. More on that later.
Mia is also entitled AF, willing to throw in the towel after failing to get a film or TV career after delivering a series of objectively shitty audition performances. At one point, she asks if she should just quit because she’s not good enough. Yes. Yes she should. She’s not very good at the thing she wants to do and doesn’t appear to be working terribly hard at her craft. Just wanting to do something doesn’t automatically necessitate the universe bending to accommodate those desires. It must be said again clearly: Dreaming of doing something doesn’t forgo the need to work hard, get good and then acquire the thing that is dreamed about. By the way, “if you dream something, you deserve it” is 100% the moral of La La Land. Well, that and “no matter what happens to good-looking white people, things are going to turn out okay, so chin up!”
The relationship that allegedly provides the core of the film isn’t just flimsy, it’s blatant gibberish. The first song between the two literally addresses the fact that they are ill-suited for one another. Yes, I’m aware that it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek and charming, but that doesn’t change how highly accurate it is. Sebastian is a neglectful wang prone to douchey fits of melancholy and rage stemming from his inability to understand he isn’t owed success. Early on, we see him paid to play piano at a restaurant where he is explicitly told to stick to the set list. He doesn’t. He can’t. Because jazz! The movie plays this off as proof of his deep passion for his chosen art form. Bullshit. It’s a grotesque demonstration of privilege. Had the scene showed him slaving away, playing music he hates, but then saving every penny in the hopes of one day having a chance to buy the club he dreams of that would have been an artist toiling for what he loves, sacrificing in the hopes he gets his chance. Instead, he literally cannot believe anyone would dare deny him the opportunity to do whatever the hell he wants.
Mia never toils either, despite singing the movie’s best song about doing just that: “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).” Working for a few years slinging coffee in arguably the coolest coffee shop in all of Hollywood doesn’t make you the most pitiable barista on the block. Nor does it entitle you to stardom. It’s stunning to me that Stone herself didn’t object to this, as her path to the beloved actress she is in real life was no doubt paved with more hardship than one failed performance of a one-woman show. The movie is unintentionally conflicted on this matter, showing scores of other beautiful women who have the same wants and needs as Mia, never once suggesting why she deserves to succeed as they fail.
It gets worse.
John Legend, a gifted musician who actually pops quite nicely on screen, is a product of the textbook Magic Negro trope. Appearing out of nowhere with a backstory that’s never explained, he arrives in time to provide the opportunity Sebastian needs to make tons of money and then tells “Seb” the “real meaning of jazz” in a “white man gets wisdom imparted on him sequence.” He then vanishes back into the stereotypical thought cloud that birthed him. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr once said “Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States” came from jazz. Sebastian—and thus writer/director Damien Chazelle—is clearly aware of the music’s origins and heroes. And yet, nobody has any problem with this white savior riding in to save the music by mansplaining it to poor Mia and opening a club to hire musicians of color to work for him, even joking maybe, if they’re lucky, they’ll one day get to own a club themselves like his undeserving ass.
This is all setting us up for the coup de gras: a finale that demonstrates clearly that Mia and Sebastian were unwittingly choosing between a life that is great in which their dreams were fulfilled or a life that is really good and in which their dreams were only mostly fulfilled. We are, presumably, meant to pity what happens to Sebastian to a degree, but doing so requires wanting a spoiled jagoff to have everything he ever wanted, including the girl, without ever having to earn it. There’s a lot of driving on the freeway near the end of the film, and a spectacular car crash has never been so warranted or sorely missed.
To love La La Land is to do the work for the film it didn’t do itself. It requires sanitizing Sebastian, and to a lesser degree Mia, and endowing them with characteristics they never demonstrate. It requires rooting for two people who have very little in common to make a quasi-meaningful fling into a lifelong relationship. It requires confusing the characters for the profound, much-needed artistic dreamers they claim to be but clearly aren’t.
I did like the songs though. The songs were very good.
Grade = C-