Beware of spoilers!
I went to see the current darling of Hollywood with my housemates last night. If you haven’t come across La La Land then I don’t know what to say to you, other than to ask you what it’s like under your rock. It’s been everywhere, and has blasted onto the awards scene with 200 nominations including for 14 Oscars – tied for the highest number ever with Titanic and All About Eve – and has rave reviews from both critics and viewers in one of the few cases where the two seem to agree. I went into the cinema quietly hopeful; true, there was no way that it could possibly live up to the hype, but it had several things going for it as far as I was concerned. I love musicals, I’d heard the cinematography was amazing (a passion of mine), and it starred Emma Stone, who holds a special place in my heart ever since Easy A. Should be great, no?
I realise that I’m in the minority in saying this, and I’m in no way trying to tell people what they should and shouldn’t like. If you loved it, great. You clearly saw something I didn’t, and feel free to keep on loving it. I really wish I could join you; I so wanted to love this film and it had so much potential, but there were just several major stumbling blocks that prevent me from joining the parade all the way to the Oscars.
I feel like if La La Land had committed to its concept then it could have been good, but in reality it was just messy. Stylistic choices were made just for aesthetic purposes and cluttered and confused things. The mood switched between quirky and ‘deep’ so quickly it gave me whiplash. It didn’t even feel like it had committed to being a musical: after opening with a huge musical number the film gets bored and wanders into romantic-drama territory before remembering that it’s supposed to be a musical and shoehorning a song in at the end. Admittedly those songs are quite good, although there are only a couple I’d want to hear again, but I feel like if a film’s going to be a musical then it has to be a musical. La La Land seems to want to be a musical because that’s quirky and different, and because musicals are Oscar Bait.
In fact, La La Land seems to do a lot of stuff for quirkiness’ sake. The opening number is a good example of this; it comes across as more a series of stylised ideas than a cohesive sequence, and this just gives the impression that it’s just showing off. Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with showing off in film – Tarantino’s movies are nothing if not hugely self-involved and I still love those – but I get the impression that Damien Chazelle confused being ‘different’ with being ‘clever’. The cinematography is ‘clever’, the dialogue is ‘clever’, the message is ‘clever’. It’s like that one hipster friend who dresses well and takes nice photos but is generally insufferable and won’t stop criticising your music taste.
General consistency issues and self-important quirkiness aside, La La Land has potential. There are some nice moments in there, even if they’re sparse and disconnected, and it does manage to evoke the atmosphere of some classic musical films, so props to it for that. But there is one error, one major failing that ruins the whole film (for me at least), that La La Land is guilty of: the characters are fundamentally unlikable.
This really is the sticking point for me when people talk about how much they love the film. I came out of the cinema completely unable to comprehend how people liked, let alone identified with, these people. Mia, played by Emma Stone, has no discernible personality beyond A) wanting to be an actress and B) being Emma Stone, which is normally something I love, but unfortunately silly faces and dancing is not enough to make up for a character who is less than two dimensional. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is the embodiment of everything I hate: rude, obnoxious and incredibly pretentious (it’s possible for people to just not like jazz, okay?!), and I can totally understand the ‘white saviour’ criticisms levelled at him for his belief that he can single-handedly save jazz. Their problems are very much middle-class white people problems, and while I’m not saying it’s impossible to feel sorry for struggling actresses and musicians it’s more difficult when they’re living in really nice apartments, going to huge parties and just moaning all the damn time.
The characters are just a series of all of the worst tropes from romantic comedies. They bitch at each other in place of flirting, then have a musical number together and are suddenly madly in love. Instead of actually showing them being a good couple, they have a montage of them doing clichéd romantic things. Worst of all, they’re absolute arseholes to everyone around them because it’s ‘quirky’. Sebastian gets Mia’s attention by blasting his car horn until she comes out of the house (people in the cinema were actually laughing at this, while I was considering what heavy object I would use to bash his head in). Mia’s even worse: she runs out on a dinner with her boyfriend and family because she realises that she’d rather be on a date with another man – a date she made while still dating her boyfriend, no less – abandoning her boyfriend with no explanation and definitely no proper apology.
The more I think about this film the more I dislike it, which is actually quite an achievement. I sat in the cinema waiting, desperately hoping, for it to get better, but it just…didn’t. If you haven’t seen it and you think you might then definitely go, but make up your own mind about the film. Sometimes I do have to wonder if critics have seen something in a film that I haven’t, or, as seems more likely in this case, watched an entirely different film altogether.