Let’s just say at the outset that La La Land will win Best Picture. Everybody is fine with it winning Best Picture. It is a very good film and a lot of people love it, so why shouldn’t it win?
Variety’s Janelle Reilly wrote an “in defense of” La La Land piece about mean old people like me who say mean things about the film and mean things about Argo and The King’s Speech and Crash and Chariots of Fire and on and on it goes. Her point is that exuberance or joy matters. Happiness matters. They’re happy that the film makes them happy and everyone wants to be happy because no one feels happy right now. And we need to feel happy and that’s why La La Land matters because it makes humans feel happy at a time when they’re freaking out.
The only problem is I don’t see La La Land as a happy film. Sure, it has moments of happiness – Emma Stone is herself a bottle of happiness to watch. The dance numbers are romantic and swoony. But ultimately? This movie is as big a bummer as life itself and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
See, I don’t think Damien Chazelle wanted to make a happy film. I see La La Land as a noir where the characters rush through their lives thinking they know what matters but in doing so they miss out on the most important things in life. I thought it was a tragic twist on a happy movie and a happy genre for happy people. But when I saw the marketing and I heard fans of the film saying it was about “following your dreams at all costs” I was amazed because that isn’t the movie I saw at all.
La La Land is a couple of moves away from a critique of its own stars. It never goes fully there but it could have. It could have been very very dark. But I’m the person who re-envisioned Passengers as a serial killer movie where the protagonist kept waking up a new girl, marrying her, getting sick of her and then killing her, over and over again for like 20 years until the final girl figures it out and kills him. So, you know.
I thought La La Land was Gigi meets Chinatown, with the title being sort of ironic. It isn’t a happy ending. It’s meant to be bittersweet. For instance, it pays homage to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and in that movie, many years later, the lovers meet again in passing. But they aren’t famous and their dreams didn’t come true – they just went on to lead mundane lives. Maybe they wonder what would have happened if, maybe not. But it didn’t matter because fate deals you a hand and you play it.
In La La Land, it’s sort of that ending but it’s also very different because their supposed dreams do come true. She does get famous and he does open a jazz club. But.
There are two ways to interpret the ending. One is to see it from Emma Stone’s point of view – where she walks into a bar and there’s Ryan Gosling and all at once she imagines what if her already way-too-perfect life had been more perfect? Oh well. If that was the movie I saw I would have hated it. Had she been the kind of starving actress who had to dig in her dashboard for a dollar’s worth of gas to put in the tank or suffered through humiliating late-night phone calls to parents to borrow money, if she drove a beater car – if her life had been close to the lives of struggling actresses I once was and have known? Or if she was struggling for a different reason, like she was blind or had one leg or something, then that ending would have worked for me.
But if the worst thing that ever happens to you is that you have one bad night doing a one-person show, or that you got hired by a jazz fusion band and thus have to sacrifice your dreams? If that is as deep as La La Land went I would HATE the movie. I would still love the dancing and singing and music but I would think, especially post-Trump, it’s like Adolf and Eva go to the picture show and they see all the twinkling lights and pretty happy white people dancing around a beautiful city devoid of any strife or horror that lives outside the snow globe. If that’s what this movie was and it beat Fences, my god, FENCES, or Moonlight or Arrival or Lion or Hidden Figures? Movies about people with real problems? Yeah, no. Screw that.
The thing was, that isn’t the movie I saw. I didn’t see it from her point of view. I saw it from Ryan Gosling’s point of view where he sees her and suddenly he realizes what a dick he’d been, how stupid he was to give up something so potentially great as that. We see them zooming through their perfect idealized white privileged lives where walking through Silverlake at night doesn’t get met with a call to the cops, or worse, getting shot trying to find your own car. Everything works out oh so perfectly for them until the end and then WHAM! Suddenly it hits them that everything they thought was right, wasn’t. Because their priorities were messed up in the first place. Suddenly, being together would have trumped any kind of dream chasing. Maybe they would have still got what they wanted. Maybe their dreams would have worked out, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because they chose love. In the first version they don’t choose love. They choose “art.” In the second version, it’s all bullshit because people matter more.
I think I might be the only person on the planet who sees that film. The “it’s about following your dreams at all costs” or “it’s about art saving lives no matter where you come from or who you are” never rang remotely true to me. That isn’t what La La Land is about. To me John Legend might as well have said “Forget it, Seb. It’s La La Land” at the end. And that is a much better movie to a pessimist like me. And I love the movie I saw. I really love that movie. And I hope that one day Chazelle goes really really dark as I know he wants to do.
So, is it wrong to poke and prod at the frontrunner during the Oscar race? I don’t think so. After all, there is a price to being a winner, there has to be. Where the Oscars are concerned, it can sometimes be better to lose than win because the second you win people start second guessing whether you deserve it or not. I saw someone write on Facebook the other day that a certain actor had only made crappy movies since winning an Oscar and that he wanted to pick the one who was going to make good movies after a win, to use that win as a stepping stone. But people by nature like to build up and then tear down. That’s the way it goes.
So to those who love the movie, be happy that it’s winning Oscars and that you’ll have a night to celebrate. The nature of people is the nature of people. The nature of Hollywood is the nature of Hollywood. The nature of the Oscars is the nature of the Oscars. And so it goes.