Does ‘La La Land’ Deserve the Hype?

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.

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  • Estoy Listo

    Point taken, now that I think about it. But it was musical after all, and it was delightful. Stone and Gosling, neither of whom I particularly enjoy, were engaging in dance and song. I am also happy to be able to recommend it to my teenage grandchildren, who may have never seen a musical that wasn’t animated.

  • RWA

    It’s wonderfully entertaining, with some stunning, beautifully-made scenes (especially the opening freeway number and the Griffith Observatory sequence) and is a loving tribute to the classic Hollywood musicals (even the look of the film captures the Technicolor magic of MGM’s late Forties-early Fifties musicals) yet…it doesn’t contribute anything new to the genre, really. The storyline is a simple and predictable one; I found myself guessing correctly all too often how one scene would proceed and how it would end.

  • George Turner

    I wouldn’t even call it a love story. It’s more like a musical you’d write about your disastrous relationship with an ex.

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  • AnotherPattyJ

    I totally agree. The production values of TV and film are just amazingly great, but the stories are weak. I really think it’s because the writers are afraid to make a judgment, to admit that some things are just wrong, or to admit that traditional values are good. So if there is no murder, no adultery, no disruption of the established order, there is no story.

  • Heather Essere

    “La La Land” is the quintessential movie for, from and about millennials. The characters are incapable of connecting with either their friends, coworkers or lovers. They speak about their “passion”—a word so overused now it’s lost all meaning especially when coming out of the mouths of such a passionless generation. The details wherein the true passion of life, love and hard work can be learned are glossed over like Mia’s play and the characters’ conversations and motivations. The audience is supposed to fill in the blanks Chavelle was too lazy to write. The audience is supposed to overlook the fact that the songs written by a team of people fail to move the plot forward (a pre-requisite of the integrated musical). Not only are we asked to accept the fact that Stone and Gosling can neither sing nor dance, we’re supposed to praise them as if they’re in little league and must receive trophies regardless of a less than winning performance. No one associated with this film should be receiving nominations, let alone awards. Their work isn’t exceptional, it’s adequate at best.