[some spoilers, I guess. I wrote this in one quick sitting, so apologies for rambling nature and possible typos]
Hot take opinion about a film I saw a week ago: LaLaLand is worth watching but not extraordinary or Best Picture worthy.
Emma Stone is great and Ryan Gosling very serviceable, but there is an excess of spectacle (which undermines consistent emotional believability) and the opening scene resembles something as if someone had said that they wanted a Gap commercial that was more saccharine and irritating than the originals. It’s organised fun, ersatz joy, and emotion as designed in a lab. On the other hand, the much more low-key song set in the Hollywood Hills with Stone and Gosling dancing is genuinely charming. The lack of consistently moving set pieces is the film’s Achilles’ heel: some of the songs are fine (although I don’t remember the majority of them, or think any will stand the test of time) but the drama and performances and themes are affecting, even as the weaker numbers take you out of the emotional dialogue with the characters while you twiddle your thumbs and want to return to the story.
A few songs should have been jettisoned and some of the directing showed off while detracting from the film’s enjoyability (like when people jumped into the pool with the camera spinning).
However, the love story does have some truly tender and lovely moments, the irritation at the Prozac-fuelled fake happiness in some of the set pieces is offset by some really good dramatic scenes and touches (like Gosling walking all the way back to his car and accompanying Stone to hers, when Gosling travels to bring Stone back to LA, Stone’s gentle teasing of Gosling 80s get-up etc.). There is enough in the screenwriting to know that our caring about the characters is because of what isn’t said, surrounds their individual oddities, and is attractive for their extremely human idiosyncrasies, not substance-free flawless looks and obvious talent. Their failures and flaws make their successes and happiness something we can root for and join in. There are any number of good-looking people, but it is so much harder to find someone who is so individually earnest and passionate about interesting things. These shades of grey are far more winning and charming than the bright primary colours of some of the biggest song numbers. The best musicals tend to have weird big songs and tender love songs, it has Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang to Who Will Buy?, Let’s Go Fly a Kite to Maria. If the songs (I generally liked the dancing because it was quirkier, with the caveat of flying got a little silly) had had the same relatability, quirkiness, humour, and humanity of the drama, LaLaLand would have been the film that its cheerleaders will it to be despite itself.
Finally, as someone who lived in LA for one of the longest stretches in my life, I genuinely love that City. But any mature love comes with complications and this is often more conflicted for people who went to L.A. with dreams of stardom. The film will definitely burnish the mythos of Hollywood that success comes to those who simply keep going and dream big, but the reality sees far more “death by encouragement”, augmented by a dark side to the disposability and judgmental nature of a Hollywood that the film doesn’t really convey. Of course the myth of Hollywood is seductive, but I have this nagging feeling for those left by the wayside. It’s like glorifying Downton Abbey without the critical faculty to question the social system which allows such hierarchy to be painted as so natural. The second level myth, that artistic integrity will be rewarded for unknowns who refuse to compromise their vision, is palpably not true. Here wish fulfilment (for those of us sick of repetitive comic book hero movies) is somehow more welcome, even if it is less naturally believable. Only Daniel Day Lewis can make it huge with all of his artistic integrity intact, right??
The best part of LaLaLand, however, is the ending. LaLaLand succeeds as a film because of the grit in the oyster. The pain and struggle of the characters, the vulnerability of the characters and the vastness and beauty of the landscape, because Los Angeles isn’t the hackneyed place of painted-on smiles, beautiful people with boundless talent and high ideals, and a glide path to fame and fortune. LaLaLand wins because Gosling can act like a bit of a dick sometimes, that Emma Stone resembles a real person rather than one of her plastic roommates. Hollywood and Los Angeles is a like an Ozymandias-like monument for human hubris over the dictates of nature- anyone who has seen Chinatown knows the basic story of how diverted aquifers made the desert bloom at the expense of others. While the movie does give the characters their own Hollywood endings, it doesn’t give us ours. Its the film’s final decision to lean towards loss being more profound than effortless success that allows us to leave the cinema with a sense of affection rather than simply having been diverted for a couple of hours. It’s a Casablanca ending, when Hollywood rewarded artistic integrity, high-mindedness, and cinema as more than entertainment. It’s a Hollywood that no longer exists but seems more real than the capitalist, emotional inducement orgy of the corporate behemoth that now bestrides the movie industry. LaLaLand only succeeds because it refuses to give us what we claim we want. It’s the humanity and not the façade that should attract us. LaLaLand’s lapses into the latter make the film far from perfect, but its commitment to the former that ultimately makes watching it rewarding. It’s Jazz, not Muzak.
[Edit to add: The Director’s Whiplash is a better movie and deserved to win that year’s Oscar but I fear that it will prove less popular because of the film’s dedication to its artistic integrity and three-dimensional characters]