The emotional payoff at the end of the La La Land—which just won a Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy (along with six other awards, including Best Screenplay)—could have been huge. Many of the elements for a powerful climax are there: rich cinematography, good actors, and a steady and talented director. There’s only one problem: La La Land is not well written. It’s not that the film has weak spots here and there in its script; it doesn’t follow the basic fundamentals of storytelling. And it’s a problem afflicting more and more movies these days. (Spoiler alert: major plot points of La La Land are going to be revealed in the following argument, so turn away if you haven’t yet seen the film.)
La La Land was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, thirty-one, who also wrote and directed the 2014 hit, Whiplash. Chazelle is undoubtedly talented, but he could have used an extra set of eyes on his script. The motivations of his characters, which are the building blocks of any good story, are never fully developed. There are also plot points that, even in a musical with fantastical elements like La La Land, are beyond belief. It’s a shame, because had the script been fully developed, La La Land could have been a masterpiece.
La La Land is a love story set in Los Angeles. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress and playwright, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling jazz musician. The two meet, fall in love, and move in together, but eventually are separated after Mia lands a role in a film shooting in Paris. The relationship collapses, Mia becomes a successful actress (and marries someone else) and Sebastian eventually opens up his own club. In the powerful final scene, Mia and her husband stumble into Sebastian’s club, and Sebastian has an extended fantasy where it is he who married Mia.
La La Land has several magnificent scenes. The opening musical number, “Another Sunny Day,” features hundreds of singers and dancers performing in the middle of a massive traffic jam, their frustration at being stuck behind the wheel exploding into joyful choreography. Mia and Sebastian share a lovely moment singing to each other as the pink dusk settles over a breathtaking view of Hollywood. The jazz scenes are exciting and, in the final scene, moving. Yet I never felt fully invested in the characters, particularly Sebastian, because I never knew what motivated them.
La La Land isn’t the only movie that fails at such fundamentals of storytelling. Manchester by the Sea is winning accolades from critics, but the main character in the film never articulates the grief that is slowly killing him. Ditto in the new Will Smith film, Collateral Beauty, whose protagonist is mute throughout much of the film. Compare these movies to what has become an anomaly: a magnificent, fully formed script like Denzel Washington’s new film Fences (Denzel was robbed for the Best Actor Award, losing to mopey Casey Affleck). Or consider fully-developed films from a previous era: Goodfellas, Annie Hall, The Empire Strikes Back, which all did a much better job of exploring their characters’ motivations.
In La La Land, Mia says she became a playwright because of an artistic aunt who lived in Paris, but we never get to see this aunt. There’s no exploration of what makes Mia tick. Sebastian, played with surprising stiffness by Ryan Gosling, is even worse. He is a jazz musician, something that you’d think would prompt an interesting backstory. But Chazelle never tells us what motivated Sebastian to embrace music. Who taught him how to play? Why jazz and not rock and roll?
La La Land isn’t so much drama as it is what movie critic Mike Stoklasa called the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One—“a drama facade.” Perhaps, in a post-literate age, filmmakers no longer feel the need to develop characters or craft great writing. That’s too bad, because by neglecting storytelling, films like La La Land, even with their piles of awards and critical praise, can only ever be good—not great.