Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Best of 2016, #7: La La Land

The Problem: As with most Oscar movies this year, this movie suffers the most simply from having the Oscar weight laid on it, which it can’t quite sustain. It’s an odd and ungainly movie, nowhere near as good as Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s previous film. Its biggest problem is that it keeps forgetting that it’s a musical for long periods of time, so that each time a song broke out, it was awkward all over again. We never step through the portal into the magical world of musicals. This is not only because the song are awkwardly sung, which I realize is intentional, but because they’re simply not very catchy or memorable.

What I Liked About It: Nevertheless, the movie is wonderfully watchable, if you’re willing to put up the effort to meet it halfway. As you’ll recall, Crazy Stupid Love topped my 2011 list, so I’m already a fan of Stone and Gosling’s chemistry and I think they’re once again wonderful together. Most importantly, there’s the ending, where the movie finally soars. Like Arrival, this was a movie I resisted while I was watching it, but the final twenty minutes made it all worthwhile, as the movie suddenly snapped together in a deep and rich way.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: A Thwarted Process Can Create Empathy for Anyone. One of the sources for the backlash to this movie has been that people are simply sick and tired of being asked to care about actors, which is after all, one of the world’s least essential professions (little better than screenwriters, in fact.) Nevertheless, I didn’t have this problem with this movie, because I thought that Chazelle did an amazing job creating empathy with a hard-to-empathize-with profession, and he did it with a brilliant scene (that only an amazing actress like Stone could have pulled off).

We get two amusing montages of Stone on auditions, with all of the ridiculous dialogue she’s expected to sell, but then we drill down on one audition that’s painfully powerful: Stone is just about to summon up tears when the director gets distracted by someone else and Stone just has to hold that moment, just on the edge of tears, until the director pays attention again. Suddenly we realize just how hard and humiliating this job is. It may not be easy to sympathize with the desire to be a Hollywood star, but watching anyone getting humiliated while trying their best is pretty easy to empathize with.
(One final point, it strikes me as strange that more people haven’t pointed out all the similarities between this movie and New York, New York.  Both were made by directors coming off a big hit [In that case, it was Scorsese following up on Taxi Driver] who decided to use up their newfound clout on an odd semi-musical about a couple trying to make it big that’s also a love letter to the director’s hometown, and in both cases the results were ungainly but still pretty great.  I wish that movie had gotten as much acclaim as this one.)


DaveH said...

There were too many convenient coincidences, which gave away chances for better character-motivated events.

1, They first meet by chance on the freeway. (could have been her need for a musician / and audition)
2. She happens by the club where he's playing piano - the sound pulls her in. (really?)
3. She runs into him at a party (could have been driven/conflicted about meeting him again)
4. In the end, a seemingly random stop off the freeway puts her in his new club. (she could have seen an ad and been torn about whether to go there)

I don't know -- my wife and I still enjoyed it, but in a fast-food, less satisfying way than we might have.

James Kennedy said...

As for DaveH's comment, for what it's worth I'm fine with the convenient coincidences, because in the world of musical-logic (which is different than crime-procedural logic, or sci-fi logic, or drama-logic) convenient coincidences are part of that aesthetic.

Matt: The songs are not catchy or memorable? As usual, you're insane and wrong! These songs have been earworms in our house for weeks. I played the soundtrack for my girls (5 and 7) ONCE and they immediately latched onto the songs. So much so, that they demanded to be taken to the movie, which we didn't think they'd like, but they were both ENTRANCED by it.

I think the skeleton key to all of your incorrect judgements is this sentence you wrote: "Like ARRIVAL, this was a movie I resisted while I was watching it..." I know why you were resisting it! Because you swim too much in the current of who-is-saying-what-about-what-big-project! So you feel the need to have a Slate-pitch counterintuitive take on things! But for those of us who aren't part of that movie-world, who don't pay attention to industry news and simply happen upon movies as they come, our lack of insider-knowledge actually gives us the ability to have more accurate, authentic judgments about things. You, Mr. Big Shot, have screeners of major movies delivered to your house on DVDs made of diamonds and cream! Me, I see these fuckers at the theater like any other schmo, while wrestling a dirty ear of corn in the mud and gristle of America!

Also: not as good as WHIPLASH? You are a man of error. LA LA LAND is an advance on WHIPLASH in every possible way. WHIPLASH is camp, a bro BLACK SWAN, another way-overrated movie ( I have complained about WHIPLASH at length in your comments here ). LA LA LAND embraces the artifice in a way that WHIPLASH didn't have the balls to; WHIPLASH was convinced it was serious, and so it sucked. LA LA LAND is a straightforward musical and it wins!

You said it was strange that more people haven't pointed out the differences between this and NEW YORK, NEW YORK. But the real antecedent for this movie is THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, which has the exact same epilogue. Both of the romantic leads get everything they want... except each other.

Matt Bird said...

Good point about the parallels between the ending of this and "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (I just rewatched that because they ran it on TCM, presented by Damien Chazelle!)