La La Land (USA, 2016)

Directed by: Damien Chazelle. I almost didn’t see this one because it was the big, mega, uber-hyped movie of the year, and it fit nicely into my contrarian urge to turn my nose up at such things. And also, it’s a Damien Chazelle movie, and although Whiplash was kind of interesting in what it told me about the culture, I didn’t love the movie. And also, leading up to the Oscars, I kept seeing articles with damning headlines about how the movie is just about a white guy mansplaining jazz to a white woman, with some old-timey song-and-dance numbers thrown in to be quaint and twee. But alas, I do consider myself someone who likes to keep up on the culture, and this was one of the most buzzed-about movies of the year, and the Oscars were approaching and I was in good shape to actually see most of the nominees before the awards night, which never happens. So I went, and I enjoyed it for what it was, but I have to say, it was kind of just a movie with an attractive young white guy explaining the value of jazz to an attractive young white woman, and they fall in love and they dance, and it’s an homage to Golden-era Hollywood musicals for some reason (why that, why now?), and a celebration of jazz (as with Whiplash, why that, why now?). It was technically very impressive, although I can see how even that level of magnanimous, conspicuous, grandiose gestures like the opening 10 minutes of long take in a song-and-dance sequence in gridlocked traffic on a LA freeway, if you find the premise of the movie insufferable from the beginning anyway, could come across as really indulgent and gratuitous and clearly awards-bait. And really, is this whole thing not awards bait? For time’s sake, I’ll just say: yes it is. There was something interesting for me in the balance between the idealization of “Hollywood” and what it stands for in the American consciousness (and in Hollywood itself), and the reality of the grind-in/grind-out, the shot of Emma Stone walking down the road that’s not built for pedestrians, to get to the nearest gas station to call a cab because her car was towed, as the perfect coda to a magical night at the house party. That kind of shit was interesting, and I tried chewing on what Chazelle was getting at with this stuff. And then the film finishes kind of disappointingly, with an ellipsis that is supposed to be self-evident, like “of course they split up and never got back together, and she got a baby with the guy from That Thing You Do, and the rest of her life, her entire domestic existence is a hollow shell of the vibrant, dynamic, youthful days she had with Ryan Gosling. Like again—what the literal fuck are you doing, Damien Chazelle? Chazelle is the king of awful, depressing denouements that are not only unsatisfying, but are meant to be satisfying in how unsatisfying they are, and which tell me more about the audience watching them than about maybe anything else. Why couldn’t they live happily ever after in this saccharine fairytale movie? Or at least, why does Emma Stone have to be so obviously unhappy with her choice? It feels like the equivalent of a Papa Roach song lyric—sad things are mature and real, and happy things are immature and phony. I’m open to the idea that there’s more going on than that, but it really doesn’t look like it, and more importantly, I kind of don’t care. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to see that this lost to Moonlight, which was, for once in my life, the movie that I actually thought was the best film of the year—a movie that is definitely about something, about something important, and very timely. Sorry Chazelle, but let your millions of dollars console you.

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