This morning, La La Land picked up the lion’s share of the 2017 Oscar nominations, tying All About Eve’s record for 14 total noms. (Well, actually, Lion got the lion’s share of nominations—BOW BEFORE MY INCISIVE WIT.) I first saw La La Land at a festival back in September, and I was basically Aziz Ansari on SNL about it—it’s OK? No, better than that—it’s good. It is a good movie. It is not a great movie, but I left the theatre with a spring in my step and a song in my heart and all that jazz, in part because of a last 10 minutes that is—yeah, OK, I’ll break out the made-up adjectives—magisplendiful. Gimme all your An American in Paris-style dance interludes.
Dunkirk: Dance interlude.
Thor: Ragnarok: Dance interlude.
The Fate of the Furious: Two dance interludes.
However, as La La Land kept racking up awards nominations and outsized critical praise, I began to wonder if I was missing something in only sort of liking it. Because I love musicals. I love classic Hollywood movies. I LOVED THE FUCKING ARTIST. Surely I should love this? So I saw it again over the weekend, to try to get my mind sorted.
I think I know why I’m not ga ga over La La.
I think it’s because young luvahs Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are dicks.
OK, not out-and-out dicks, but dickish in a way that kept me from being fully invested in their story. Some background: Mia! Is an aspiring actress who pays for her room in a way-too-fancy apartment by working as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot. Seb! Is a jazz pianist who won’t rest until he opens a jazz bar where they play jazz, like, how it’s supposed to be played, man. After a meet-cute and 10 or so romantic montages, each of them comes to a turning point where they must decide whether they’re willing to give up on their dreams. For Mia, the choice is between opting out of the soul-destroying audition grind in favor of moving back to her hometown and continuing her college education. Seb’s choice is whether or not to sell out by committing to a job in a popular jazz band where the pay is good but he has to use—gasp—a synthesizer.
Sorry to get all 2014 with my verbiage here, but Seb and Mia are so #whitepeopleproblems it hurts. As Kristy wrote in her review, La La Land doesn’t have much by way of stakes. Oh, movie star-attractive white people who (at least in Mia’s case) have family they can easily fall back on might have to abandon their passion projects and get, like, real jobs? NO! NOT THAT! NEVER THAT! Seb has overdue bills galore, but he torpedoes a job because his boss wants him to a stick to a setlist instead of playing his own compositions, LIKE A SQUARE. Whatever, man. It’s not that Seb is pretentious and irresponsible. It’s that he has principles.
I’m not saying that Mia and Seb’s struggles aren’t valid. You can be a normal person with normal problems and still have your story worth being told. I’m saying that when it’s revealed that Mia drives a Prius, I rolled my eyes a little. When she can quit her job to rehearse her one-woman show, I rolled my eyes a little.
And then there’s Seb, who, when Mia tells him she doesn’t like jazz music, helpfully informs her that that’s just because she doesn’t understand the history, the context. I tell you, if I hadn’t been wearing my difficult-to-take off rainboots, I would have thrown my shoes at the screen. Seb is, pardon my French, a pretentious assgoblin tool. He views it as a personal affront that the location where he wants to set up his jazz club is home to a samba tapas bar. “Pick one!,” he exclaims to Mia, radiating righteous indignation. RYAN GOSLING, I SWEAR TO GOD, LET THE SAMBA TAPAS BAR BE. WHAT DID THE SAMBA TAPAS BAR EVER DO TO YOU?
That pretentiousness eventually wears off on Mia, too. Assuming she wants him to get a steady job, Ryan signs up with a jazz band run by an old schoolmate, Keith, played by John Legend. While Seb is a traditionalist, Keith is an innovator, integrating pop-rock elements into his arrangements and playing to a younger, non-jazz aficionado crowd. When Mia sees them play for the first time, she takes in the spectacle—the lights, the affectedly “cool” costumes, the backup dancers gyrating on stage—and her expression slowly transforms from excitement to disappointment, verging on horror. “How terrible it all is,” Mia’s face—and the movie—tells us. “Sebastian has become what he hated. He’s given up on his dream.”
That’s not what I was thinking. What I was thinking is this: Emma Stone, WHY IN THE FUCK are you side-eyeing those backup dancers like that? You’re throwing them the nuclear-powered I’m-not-mad-I’m-just-disappointed look like they’re toddlers who just took a shit on your dining room carpet. They’re up there doing their jobs. Paying the bills. They probably can’t afford god-damned Priuses.
I don’t ask that main characters in every movie be full of squeaky-clean, morally unambiguous goodness. And I think that writer/director Damien Chazelle knows, at least in the case of Seb, that the character he’s brought to the big screen is pretentious as fuuuuuck. But, when we’re talking about a romantic movie (as opposed to, say, a dark comedy), I want the main characters to at least realize their faults and become better people, people I can root for. Seb and Mia never really do. In their everyday reliability, their normal people problems, they became for me unrelatable, because I honestly couldn’t give two shits about their problems. If their problems are authentic, building all this fol-de-rol around them feels unearned. They’re young, they’re traditionally attractive, and they’re white—three qualities that the entertainment industry, whether Hollywood or the music biz, tends to attach outsized value to.
Basically Mia and Seb are rocking some hardcore advantages that go entirely unacknowledged and that pull me out of their “glorious struggle in the City of Angels” narrative just a whiff of a smidge. That makes the racial politics of the movie somewhat squiffy. To Chazelle’s credit, there’s a lot of background diversity, but it all feels somewhat forced, all the unnamed black extras cheering on Ryan Gosling as he plays ~*~real~*~ jazz appearing as little more than props to establish how authentic he is, how important his struggle. And I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that. (For more on La La Land’s white savior-y attitude towards jazz, I recommend the piece Ira Madison III wrote for MTV.)
I don’t ask that La La Land be awash in serious realism. It’s a heavily stylized, feel-good musical that present a very specific, nostalgia-tinged vision of Los Angeles. But as it is, it falls prey to that old L.A. cliche—pretty, glitzy, and glam, but on the inside, far too shallow.