Today, I was supposed to post the first of my annual “top five” media lists for 2016. Instead, in the wake of the Golden Globes, I have decided it is more apt for me to first explain my unpopular opinion: why I found myself completely un-awed by the industry’s favorite film of 2016, La La Land. Not only has the film been raved about since it ran the festival circuit, but it swept the award ceremony on Sunday, racking the most wins (7) of any film historically at the Golden Globes. This in the same year that gave us incredible, moving films like Silence and Moonlight.
Simply put, I found the film self-indulgent. First, it is a classic narcissistic Hollywood film about itself and the larger world of showbiz, following in the footsteps of recent movies like Hail, Caesar!; Argo; The Artist; Knight of Cups; Birdman and a whole host of older films such as Singin’ in the Rain. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with films about Hollywood, and I thoroughly enjoy each of the movies on that list. What I do not appreciate, however, is when these types of films receive undue attention and award recognition because the folks in Hollywood love movies about their industry. (Please note I am not the only person saying this; here’s one article as an example.)
Second, I felt like La La Land relied too heavily on the star status of its leads. I imagine someone in a boardroom suggesting, “Why don’t we give the audience two hours with America’s beloved and delightfully, charming performers Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone–what could go wrong?” It is true they’re both top-notch actors, but the key to a truly successful film is not audience connection with celebrities. It’s audience connection with the characters. And I had an extremely hard time caring about either Stone or Gosling’s characters. In fact, I don’t even remember their characters’ names.
This leads to my third frustration, which was that I also didn’t care about either lead’s story. So Stone wants to be an actress. Gosling wants to own a jazz club and save jazz. Their dreams of grandeur and success are nothing radically new to the silver screen, and while both individuals mope about their lives, they drive nice cars, eat at fancy restaurants, go out with friends, and have enough work (though perhaps not exciting, certainly not unpleasant)) to pay their bills. And of course, spoiler alert, they both hit the jackpot and achieve their dreams. In my own relatively privileged life, I had quite a hard time identifying with either individual, and after 2016, a year where many people around the US and across the political spectrum asked for us to pay attention to their real and troubling daily struggles, this film felt trivial. Especially if I again compare it to films like Silence and Moonlight, whose characters faced some quite serious obstacles.
In summary, I found La La Land uninspiring and predictable. I had hoped that Damien Chazelle would do something unexpected and self-reflexive in his commentary on the industry, but nope, it was exactly as the trailer suggested. Two hours of escapism and voyeurism.
With that being said, if there hadn’t been so much hype about the film, I would have likely found it to be a pleasant and forgettable film. I would have raised an eyebrow at the scenes of Gosling showing black people how to play jazz, and I would have rolled my eyes at much of the blatant nostalgia and sentimentality, and then I would have moved on. But, I can’t do that this time especially in light of its recent wins. My husband Josh made a really apt point. He commented: “Hollywood generated hype about yet another movie about Hollywood and that hype was then internalized and repeated through the popular conscience, creating a feedback loop of hype.” The hype replaces the object itself, leaving us with an aura of excitement rather than genuine critical appreciation for a masterful film.
Once again, I want to reiterate that I have no problem with fun movies about nothing, as long as we are able to acknowledge when a film is merely fun and about nothing–even if we wish it did more.
Them be fighting words, a peer told me on Letterboxd, so I will step back at this point, now that I haven’t held back on my opinions. I know many of you really loved this film, so I do genuinely want to hear why you enjoyed it and where it compares to other films from last year for you. I’ll also be releasing my top five films from 2016 soon, so you can get a sense of what I did really appreciate.