La La Land: City of Dim Stars
By Adam Tawfik
La La Land, like every Oscar frontrunner is bound to face a wave of backlash. From its premiere at Sundance last January, La La Land was hyped, and hyped, and hyped by everybody, including the highbrow critics, the awards pundits, and the industry bigwigs. Around September, the unfiltered euphoria was challenged by editorials suggesting that La La Land was overrated. Closer to awards season as La La Land usurped prizes left and right, the criticism took a more pointedly aggressive turn.
Having seen it myself, I can understand the visceral reaction around this film. My experience was akin to eating a store-bought cake; in spite of my reservations to the fake vanilla and the stale batter, I still eat it for that taste of sugar. In the end, the aftertaste of artificiality lingers in my mouth and my mind. With La La Land, I was reasonably entertained in the moment, but its flaws resonated with me longer.
Although its over representation at the awards show is certainly annoying (considering that it ties for the same amount of Oscar nominations as my darling All About Eve), what really galls me most about La La Land is the overabundance of commentary of the behind-the-scenes technical challenges and all of the side by side comparisons of scenes La La Land and scenes from classic films that Damien Chazalle clunkily “paid homage to.”
What makes the musicals by Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, and Astaire endure the test of time is their ability to be effortless yet superhumanly multitalented at the same time. Writer-director Damien Chazelle, a 32-year old Harvard graduate, conversely, slaps you in the face with his technical and film geekery. This approach inadvertently spotlights La La Land’s mediocrity, from the songs, the breathy auto tuned singing voices of the entire cast, the costumes, and worst in my mind, the negligible choreography which is one step above a beginners swing dance course. For this reason, La La Land lacks the magic spark that makes masterworks like Singing in the Rain and others dazzle. As Richard Brody sharply observed, “Chazelle strives to impress, to wow, to dazzle…[the numbers] close off the imagination rather than opening it. [And] The one thing that Chazelle seems to have little interest in is life.”
The only person to escape criticism is Emma Stone. I think that her “it girl” status of 2016 has given her this immunity. Richard Brody faulted Chazalle’s characterization of Mia, rightly pointing out that she is nothing more than a “cipher.” However, he praises Stone, dubiously claiming that “all the movie’s charm emerges from her performance.” Like with so many of the “it girls” of recent years- Jennifer Lawrence, Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley, etc.- Stone is a watchable actress, but one with a decidedly limited range.
As in Birdman, Stone proves that she can handle snarky comedy “one liners” well. She’s in her element where she can utilize her easygoing, sarcastic vibe to mock Seb (Ryan Gosling), who is an uptight, sullen self-proclaimer of “pure jazz.” She is considerably buoyed by Gosling’s intensity and moroseness, which compliments her light touch. With the exception of a montage where Stone amusingly auditions for a series of unsuitable roles, she lacks dynamism in her solo scenes. From the films I’ve seen Stone in, she doesn’t have a flair for grief and sadness. Like the Oscar bait monologue in Birdman, Stone in her “made for Oscar” number (“Here’s to the Ones who Dream”) overdoes the eyes and nostrils while her overall presence underwhelms as she strains to convey pathos.
It is an interesting aspect of current film criticism that male directors and male actors/characters are intensely scrutinized for faux pas’ while female counterparts’ flaws are cast under the rug. Much has been made (and to a degree fairly so) about Gosling’s “white savior” jazz appropriator and the way he supposedly “mansplains” jazz to Emma Stone (I think this is a bit overwrought). In an interesting perspective, Will Brooker argues that La La Land’s (evil) genius is that it symbolizes how 2016 is the year where mediocre hacks reign supreme. Brooker makes parallels between Ryan Gosling and Donald Trump:
“Ryan Gosling, who pluckily spent three months learning piano to play the protagonist, is the perfect hero in a year when the new president of the United States can take over with no training. His reality-show-standard song and dance routines are perfectly suited to this new era, when a mediocre businessman and second-rate television celebrity can become Commander-in-Chief.”
It’s true that Gosling isn’t a singer or a hoofer, but why is he faulted when Stone isn’t any better at either (and in my opinion she’s worse on both counts)? I agree that Seb is too cocky in his pedestrian opinions of jazz as well as in his actual ability as a musician.
At the very least Gosling overcomes the many shortcomings of his character by coming the closest to La La Land’s goal of combining the old movie cocksure naiveté with modern cynicism. Although Seb, as conceived by Chazelle, is problematic in many ways, at least he has a logical arc that Mia sorely lacks. We at least get a glimpse of Seb’s process as well as his (limited) ability as we see him in action. It is insinuated that Mia’s self-financed one-woman show is great, but there’s no way to gauge for ourselves as we don’t get to see it for ourselves. That doesn’t stop the film and Stone stridently instructing us to empathize with Mia’s heartbreak over the lack of attendance and her inability to pay her costs.
Seb’s trajectory from a struggling jazz musician to a keyboardist for his friend’s sellout electronica group (making $1000 a week) to the proprietor of his own jazz bar is wishful thinking. But Mia’s rise from barista to being discovered by an agent who was one of 3 people in attendance for the one-woman show who just happened to remember Mia several months after the fact, leading to a starring role with a script that will be based around her for a film in Paris, which makes her an A-list movie star is truly fantastical.
Certainly, Chazelle’s underwriting of Mia is a huge handicap, but in the end, Stone is wrong for the role because she is too mainstream, too trendy to be a credible underdog. Basically, the film assumes that we’ll root for Mia because Emma Stone is America’s Sweetheart; it seems to have worked as Stone is a shoo-in for Best Actress. Mia truly is the most entitled and undeserving character I’ve seen on film in a long while.
La La Land is the lucky recipient of a widespread nostalgia about the glamour and escapism of old Hollywood musicals, and from the fact that very few are knowledgeable of the movies themselves. In the long run, I do believe that La La Land will be contextualized correctly as another one of those lily-livered Best Picture winners that bested more original and innovative movies. (I guess it’ll make the Alternative Oscars relevant for years to come.)