La La Land
If there’s something that can be counted on like clockwork, it’s that every year, a film will show up on lots of experts’ lists in early December as “the film to beat.” It seems arbitrary, yet all the experts seem to agree on the one film. Perhaps you’ve never even heard of it until the nominations for Golden Globe Awards are announced. Perhaps you’re sipping your morning coffee when you hear “the front-runner is…” on the morning news. It doesn’t make sense. How can the Best Picture be determined by simple suggestion?
La La Land is the one film this year that has been preordained. Almost any expert will tell you it’s a front-runner. So what is it? It’s a modern musical, set in Los Angeles with a simple “Boy with a dream meets girl with a dream, and they both pursue their dreams” plot line. I stand corrected on this review’s first sentence. There are actually two things that you can count on like clockwork. The other is that any film about films, or actors, or Hollywood, or set in Hollywood is looked at as better than it’s brothers without regard to content. There may not be a more self-serving bunch in America than those in power in Hollywood. Looking back just in the last five years, a film about an actor (Birdman), a film about a film (Argo), and a film about Hollywood (The Artist) have all won Best Picture. That gives La La a great chance, indeed.
In any good genre film, the opening scene should set the tone for what the whole film will be. A horror film usually opens with some kind of horror. A western usually opens with the main cowboy being wronged and/or setting out on an adventure. A musical opens with a song. La La opens with a gigantic “strangers-singing-together” production based around the infamous traffic of southern California. It’s over-the-top, and frankly, it’s annoying. If this was the tone being set forth, I was in for a long two hours. As it turns out, there really is not ever another moment in the film where complete strangers band together like an episode of Glee and sing like the world is watching. This makes the open even that more infuriating. Its sole purpose is really just to set up a meet-cute for Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the films stars.
Stone plays a wanna-be actress. Gosling plays a wanna-be jazz pianist. They spend the next ninety minutes or so living life in an overly-stereotypical Los Angeles, full of bright costumes and shattered dreams. The musical interactions between Stone and Gosling are odd. They’re meant to be enchanting, but the fantasy of some of them took me out of reality and put me in a 1950’s Disney production (complete with outer space dancing) that left me scratching my head.
This isn’t to say that the film is unwatchable. Having two of Hollywood’s most beautiful people on screen is far from a bad thing. That being said, Stone shines as an actress, not as a singer. An audition scene in the film will remind you of her talent, but a short time later, you realize that though she can sing, she is no Judy Garland or Julie Andrews. Likewise, Gosling excels in the jazz musician role and doesn’t fair much better than Stone in the singing department. It really reinforces the superficiality of fame and how looks tend to win out over actual talent (did anyone see Gerard Butler in Phantom? I rest my case). What Gosling does do well is play the piano. In what may be the greatest thing about this film, Ryan Gosling is an honest-to-God, piano-playing prodigy. You will be stunned into submission as he tickles the ivories, I promise.
La La Land takes a pretty straight-forward approach at storytelling. It’s a bit cliche (ok, it’s a lot cliche), but it makes you smile a whole bunch, and really, isn’t being entertained what going to the cinema is really all about? The Academy is often criticized for endorsing films that appeal to a limited audience. Perhaps is was the casting, or perhaps it was the music, but my screening was full of patrons of all ages. There were middle school-aged children seeing the film with their parents and grandparents. When the end credits rolled, most of the audience clapped. For what it’s worth, La La Land seems to be a box office success, and that’s something the Academy would be proud to say it recognized. In the last 20 years, I’d say Titanic and Return of the King were the only Best Pictures to have universal popularity with a box office to match. A beloved Best Picture isn’t always the right choice, but even the popular vote wins once in a while.
I expect a full slate of Oscar nominations for this one. Best Picture for sure. Director (and screenwriter) Damien Chazelle, who came to fame for directing 2014’s Whiplash, should get a Best Directing nom and likely an undeserving screenplay nom. Not undeserving because it isn’t unique. Undeserving because it isn’t unique and great. Whiplash was both. La La‘s formula script is just that, and I say give the honors to people who tried harder. I also don’t believe either star deserves an acting nomination, but I’ve been surprised before. I think production design, cinematography, and sound will all get recognized as well. So will it actually win the big one? Probably. Because Hollywood has a really hard time looking at itself in the mirror and not patting itself on the back.