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If you didn’t love La La Land, are you dead inside?

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone

Note: This article discusses plot points from La La Land.

Sean O’Neal: Well, guys, it’s official: La La Land has scored an incredible 14 Oscar nominations, and it’s decidedly the feel-good, crowd-pleasing movie sensation of the year! Critics love it! The people love it! Your mom loves it! Even that guy at your work who says, “I’m not into musicals, but…”—even he grudgingly admits he loved it! Yes, it seems La La Land is the rare film destined to be part of both Oscars lore and online dating profiles for decades to come. And here within our office, where La La Land has sparked debate since the day it was released, it’s this year’s movie that makes me feel most like an android desperately trying to mimic human emotion, all because I thought it was okay. Pretty good, even. And while I understand why Damien Chazelle’s deeply reverent love letter to Hollywood appealed to the Academy (who would probably nominate a film called Movies Are Amazing so long as it was properly lit), I don’t really get what it is everyone else is so passionate about. Or more specifically, why La La Land’s ample charms—many of which I’ve acknowledged in our discussions here—didn’t leave me breathless and bedazzled, the way it did for so many of you.

This weekend, I was amused to see this ongoing discussion we’ve been having become a national topic of conversation on Saturday Night Live, where Aziz Ansari stood in for me and for everyone else who thought La La Land was good and fun and all, but… you know, nothing amazing.

While I obviously side with Ansari here, I also agree with Beck Bennett’s and Cecily Strong’s pop culture cops: I not only thought the amateurish nature of Emma Stone’s and Ryan Gosling’s singing and dancing made sense for the movie’s “regular people” approach to musicals, but I’d even go a step further in saying it perfectly captures the mediocrity of their characters, whose talents, like so many other L.A. hopefuls, are acceptable, but not exceptional. Hey, I also agree with them that nitpicking the overabundance of montages, especially in a musical, feels like grasping for criticism! And as sympathetic as I am toward those who take umbrage with Gosling’s white man “saving” jazz on behalf of black artists or who say his character is guilty of “mansplaining” jazz to Stone’s neophyte, I’m sorry (and, as always, crushingly aware of my white male privilege), but dismissing an entire film because it doesn’t give proper respect to jazz, a genre 90 percent of people otherwise don’t give a shit about, is a bit of an overreach. Despite what those critics have suggested, or what Ansari says in the SNL sketch, La La Land is not a film about jazz. It’s a film that uses jazz, the way a college freshman might use a Miles Davis poster. Of course it’s not going to have the most enlightened take.

I will say, I am slightly more open to the criticisms that Stone’s Mia was very thinly sketched and that she deserves extra credit for wringing so much out of a character that the script, like Gosling’s Seb, doesn’t seem all that interested in getting to know. Still, much like even those who might chastise Chazelle for that, I thought Stone did good work with what she was given. And besides, like everything else about La La Land, it all turned out fine. It was fine.

Yet while I haven’t yet been think-pieced into condemning the film altogether, I wasn’t beguiled into loving it either. All told, La La Land reminds me of The Artist, another crowd-pleasing Best Picture contender and similarly rigidly structured homage to Hollywood’s glory days. Like La La Land, The Artist was a film I enjoyed while I was watching it, appreciated how deftly it pulled off its formal genre exercises, yet felt nothing for it afterward—and have lukewarm to nil desire to revisit it. And yet, I don’t recall anyone berating me with “How could you not love The Artist?” With La La Land, I’m beginning to feel like some sort of emotional leper up in here.

Gwen, you may be The A.V. Club’s most fervent La La Land fan. What was it that you sparked to?

Gwen Ihnat: It’s true. Every once in a while, a movie will hit an emotional zenith for me (a while back it was Inside Out), and right now that movie is La La Land. In fact, if someone could have crafted my perfect movie, it would be La La Land. And I say this as someone who’s only been to L.A. a few times in my entire life.

Outside of Disney cartoons, musicals were my first and favorite movies, back when I barely knew what movies were. I wrote a primer on the Fred and Ginger canon for this very website. Having zero dance skills and only the most meager karaoke abilities myself, I am fascinated by the abilities of performers like Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, who make their transcendent numbers look effortless. I’ve spent too many hours watching musicals from Hollywood’s golden age to count, all of them ending in a smiling, tuneful happily-ever-after.

Which is one of the many things I love about La La Land. After the adorable meet-cute and the joy of “Summer,” reality sets in for Mia and Seb. They both have their own dreams—and in most other musicals, those dreams would align seamlessly. Mickey and Judy can put on a show and save the town/school/camp! But real life, as we know, crashes in much harder. Especially with two people who are just starting their careers, there’s very little chance that things can line up perfectly. And when Mia and Seb have their first fight over a romantic dinner, the film captures how something set up so beautifully can unravel. (I’m also an absolute sucker for romances in which the leads don’t wind up together; as a kid, if I wasn’t watching Top Hat, I was watching Casablanca.)

I also appreciated the movie’s blurring of that reality with Hollywood fantasy, like when Seb and Mia are watching a repertory screening of Rebel Without A Cause and the film breaks—but lucky for them, the actual Griffith Park Observatory is close by. Thanks to living in “La La Land,” they’re able to pull a bit of that movie magic right off the screen and into their lives, floating through the planetarium, buoyed by their love for each other—though by the time of their first kiss, they’re pulled right back down to earth. And of course, it all works because of the chemistry between Stone and Gosling, two actors I’ve loved since that Dirty Dancing scene in Crazy, Stupid, Love, and whose third on-screen pairing here fits the impossible Astaire-Rogers mold of two appealing performers whose likability is multiplied exponentially when they’re together. All together, I find all of this so transcendent, and so dazzled was I by La La Land’s candy-colored landscape that the complaints I’ve since heard (the mansplaining of jazz, the fact that Mia never wears pants) honestly didn’t even register.

Then there was that ending…

I had been holding back tears until then, but as soon as it came, I started sobbing. I cried so hard that eventually my husband and I just started laughing at how hard I was crying. I cried so hard that my contacts fell out, and I had to stumble to the bathroom blind, where I cried some more. Now, that’s definitely the most I have ever cried at a movie, but at this point in my life, so many people have waltzed in and out—people who, at one point, were the most important in the world to me, but who now I hardly ever see or will never see again. Earlier that week, I had learned of the death of a friend from my old, formative haunt of Champaign, Illinois, so I’m sure that was part of my reaction. Everyone in your life affects you, but some so much more than others; the person I am now may owe as much to my friends in Champaign as to my actual parents. And like everyone, I, too, could have an alternate timeline. What if I had stayed down there, like so many of my friends did? What if I never left? What if I never met my husband? What if, if, if. So much just happens in your life, sometimes the people who most helped shape you don’t register more than a knowing glance and a nod, like the one Mia and Seb share at the end. So, count me among the saps who will always consider La La Land one of their all-time favorite movies.

But I’m not one to call someone out for not feeling about something the way I did: My La La Land reaction was so extreme that I would be surprised if someone had a similar one (but I know that that person would be a kindred spirit). I’m sure you had a more rational, grounded, sane take on La La Land, Sean. So what is it?

Sean O’Neal: Well, likewise, I don’t begrudge anyone who has that sort of visceral emotional reaction to any work of art, which so often defies explanation. When I was a kid, for example, I didn’t cry at Old Yeller, but I did get weepy over the mistreated aliens in Cocoon: The Return, for fuck’s sake. I know that sometimes films just strike that ineffable chord. Also, it sounds like you had a lot of personal things on your mind that were unpredictably stirred by La La Land—which is more than I can say about Cocoon: The Return. (There’s just something about the way Wilford Brimley calls the alien “my friend” that gets to me.)

I guess my only rational objection to your purely human response is that La La Land feels like such a postmodern exercise—paying reverent homage to, but also knowingly trying to subvert, those tropes—that I was never able to lose myself in it completely or look at it as its own artistic statement. Even that ending that moved you so—and that you (and others) have cited as the thing that differentiates it from the typical Hollywood love story—is lifted nearly wholesale, along with a lot of other things, from The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. Again, as with The Artist, I was always hyperaware that I was watching a film made specifically to mimic other films. And to me, it often felt like something you might see on the Universal Studios back lot, a fake film created to walk tourists through “The Magic Of How Movies Are Made.”

But that’s just the critic in me. Most of my real soul-searching since has to do with whether my inability to ignore all these things and just enjoy two charming, attractive people falling in love speaks to some larger problem. I mean, I don’t relish musicals the way you do, but I did grow up with them. My mom has worked in the Dallas theater community for decades, and I spent my adolescence surrounded by actors belting out Sondheim, so I’m certainly not as averse to them as some people are. I bet I even love Los Angeles more than you do (the 1940s/’50s, James Ellroy version that La La Land clearly reveres, anyway), and besides that, I’m a sucker for movies about people making movies. Like you, I also think Stone and Gosling have incredible, even suspicious chemistry. (“If I were Eva Mendes, no fucking way would I let them work together,” my wife said as we were leaving the theater.) So all the pieces were definitely there for me to be swept away.

And yet, hearing that you cried so hard your contacts fell out, I can’t help but feel like I’m missing something. Caity, when we discussed this at our last editorial meeting, you kinda, sorta suggested it might be a soul. Care to offer more armchair analysis?

Caity PenzeyMoog: Sean, I believe you have a soul. I just have a hard time reconciling with the souls of people who didn’t respond to La La Land emotionally, and that’s because my reaction to it was outsized, to say the least. Like Gwen, the ending absolutely gutted me. I enjoyed the rest of the film plenty; each song and dance number got me smiling. But then, lots of musicals get me smiling. I love musicals. (Though I know from working with Gwen for the past two years that, compared to her, it’s a casual love.) Still, all of the music and everything else that happens takes on new, deeper meaning at that ending.

The word “catharsis” gets overused, but La La Land’s ending was a true cathartic moment for me. Going by Aristotle’s definition—“a purification through the purging of pity and fear”—this may have been the most extreme catharsis I’ve ever experienced at the hands of a film. (Books and real life hit me hard, but very rarely a film.) If my emotional range took the shape of a well, Moonlight and Manchester By The Sea made some waves on the surface, while La La Land scooped right down to the bottom and suctioned everything out. It’s in that context that I feel aghast at your (and some of our co-workers’) shrug of a reaction. But then, I can only parse out why the ending hit me so hard.

I imagine most ambitious people have experienced this at some point in their lives (or, if they’re young, they will in the future): Pursuing your ambitions collides against the time and energy it takes to be in a relationship. So much of my relationship with my partner involves figuring out the balance between what we want to do on our own and what we want to do together—when we need to see each other less than we’d like so we can work on our passions and ambitions, and when we need to set those things aside to spend meaningful time together. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that my previous relationships demanded more of my time and energy than I was willing to give up. And part of what makes my current relationship work is just being more or less on the same page about that.

When La La Land flashes forward five years and we see their relationship didn’t withstand achieving their ambitions, it totally devastated me—because that’s a fear I’ve had for all my adult life. There are so many sacrifices and compromises you have to make to be in a committed relationship, all while still going after the idea of who you want to be. And in the case of these two people, it didn’t work out. The fact that La La Land accomplishes that story without cynicism or romanticizing is what makes it work. Had Gosling’s character been a real asshole (like he was in Blue Valentine), its examination of relationships versus ambitions would’ve been lost. Neither lives a fairy tale, but neither falls to tragedy, which is the real magic of the film.

Of course, it helps that I’m a sap. I cry at film trailers. I cry at YouTube videos of old people with puppies. I cry every time Dobby dies when I reread Harry Potter. So maybe I was primed to be gutted by La La Land more than the average person, who saves their crying for Terms Of Endearment. But more than anything, I guess certain factors in my life made it just right for this story about two young dreamers falling in love to resonate the way it did. It’s possible—probable, even—that La La Land wouldn’t have affected me much just a few years ago, when I was much more cynical about love and far less sure of my life’s ambitions. It’s also probable that, if the film had come out 10 years from now, I’d be past the point of grappling with these things. (Then again, if my increasing sappiness continues on its current trajectory, I may die of dehydration well before then.)

Anyway, writing this out makes me realize that the reason La La Land affected me so was for fairly specific, personal reasons. So, Sean, maybe it’s just that La La Land didn’t have those personal connections for you?

Sean O’Neal: I guess not! Which makes sense: I’ve been married for just under a decade now to a woman who’s supported me through at least a couple of different dreams, and I’ve been lucky that our respective ambitions never got in the way of our relationship. And while I can empathize with Gwen’s wistful reminiscing over old friends and loves lost to death, distance, and just plain time, I suppose the difference is that I’ve never found myself too caught up in wondering “what if” about any of them. In so many ways, I’m very happy with the way my life turned out. Which I guess is what leaves me room to think about other, more inconsequential stuff—like why a movie everyone really loved didn’t blow me away.

So thanks for reassuring me, Gwen and Caity. From the sound of things, not being moved to tears by La La Land doesn’t mean I’m the one with the issues. You guys are!