Love it, hate it or feel indifferent about it, Damien Chazelle's film La La Land is more than just a movie for those of us in the arts living in the Hollywood area. Dealing as it does with the unexpected and yet somehow inevitable love affair between two aspiring artists, a jazz pianist (Sebastion) and an actress (Mia), La La Land uses the landscape and the reality of the world in which we live here to spin elaborate romantic fantasies about the vagaries of fate. That is, as we pursue the fulfillment of our professional hopes and dreams, is there indeed a destiny that can be achieved by persistence and hard work, or it all simply the luck of the draw, with very little regard for talent or deserving?
After having watched the movie twice and read the published screenplay - which is significantly different in some crucial respects from the film -- I do feel a lot of admiration for what the 31 year old Mr. Chazelle was able to accomplish. He has a great sense of rhythm, pace and visual imagination - qualities he also displayed in his earlier film, Whiplash. He's a sharp observer of nuance between characters - take a close look at that scene between Sebastian and his older sister (Laura), where we learn everything we need to know about Seb in a scene that never stops moving forward -- as well as the nuance of the entertainment industry itself, veering between documentary-like depictions (those heartless casting sessions) and tongue-in-cheek lampooning (the "hot" screenwriter, Carlo, who is starting a franchise based on the Goldilocks story written as a home-invasion thriller.) More than that, this guy can write some multi-faceted dialogue, even when it comes to diehard romantic conventions. It's harder to appreciate out of context, but take a look at this exchange early on when Seb helps Mia try to track down where her car is parked:
MIA: Strange that we keep running into each other.
SEB: It is strange. Maybe it means something.
MIA: I doubt it.
SEB: Yeah, I don't think so either.
These lines give Gosling and Stone so much to work with as they navigate the perilous tightrope of attraction. Such a nice sense of spontaneity without ever forcing the characters to talk about how difficult it is to trust each other. Add to this the visual excitement he stirs up in La La Lands's first and last 10 minutes - each as pleasurable a piece of pure filmmaking as any American film in recent memory -- and there is no overstating it. This guy's got game.
There are, however, two things in this admirable film that I have to take issue with -- one of which goes back directly to the La La Land that we live in, and something that I don't think Mr. Chazelle accurately captured.
Okay, and this is where I guess should say that warning, something of a hallmark of our times: SPOILER ALERT! As if you who have followed me this far wouldn't have figured out by now that I'm going to be discussing this film in some depth. But the last thing I want is even one reader lying awake at night, quaking with anger at having some surprise spoiled. The essence of life is surprise - find it wherever you can, keep it close to your heart.
One of the hardest things about writing that ventures into the world of romance -- especially hetero romance -- is being equally fair to both characters. The terrain of love/relationships is so littered with emotional, political and neurotic minefields -- well, I think we all get the perils, especially when a man is doing the writing. In my (admittedly male) opinion, I think the young Mr. Chazelle acquits himself pretty well. Sebastian and Mia both seem like recognizable inhabitants of SoCal, the kind of folks who slave away at demanding and often demeaning jobs while waiting for their lives to take off.
What I have trouble with, though - and where I think that La La Land goes slightly off the rails - is in Mia's decision to write a one-woman show for herself. In fact, it's not even Mia's idea to do it - she takes her cue from Sebastian telling her that's what she should be doing, based on Mia's having told him that she used to make up stories and act them out when she was a kid. Huh? Say what?
Hey, take it from this Twisted Hipster - a veteran of 25 years in New York theater and 20 years in Los Angeles theater -- it's HARD to write a good play, much less a good full-length one person show. HARD. Just because you made up little skits when you were a kid doesn't mean you have what it takes to command a stage for 70 minutes. And there's nothing in Mia's personality or life experience to make us believe she can do it. (She's not an introvert, not a word person, not a great storyteller.) It kind of makes sense that Sebastian suggests it -- he wants her to be special and believes she can do anything! And it kind of makes sense that Mia would take a shot at it, wanting to please him, to live up to this crazy idea he has of her. But there's no way she would go through with it. No way. She's too smart to court such certain disaster. And her friends would head her off at the pass, they would sit her down and tell her: girl, what are you thinking? You don't have the chops to write a good monologue, much less a good show. And the risk of money and reputation just isn't worth it.
It's telling that -- while we see several examples of jazz and Sebastian's obsession with it - we don't see a single moment of Mia's show. We see her scribbling down ideas, we see her pre-show, and we see the lights come up on the skeletal crew of an audience when the show is over, but Chazelle cannot even imagine a highlight for us. We hear afterwards that she cannot even afford to pay the rent on the theater -- something that is highly unlikely, since every theater owner I'm aware of demands full payment in advance, especially for a one night rental. Then again, just getting the show up at all takes the cooperation of friends and fellow artists, none of whom seem to be involved in helping Mia make this happen.
No, as a screenwriter myself, I understand what young Chazelle had in mind. Mia has to crash and burn doing this crazy idea that Sebastian had for her - which is then redeemed when it turns out that a casting person was in her skeletal audience (wow!) and this casting person will become the agent in making all her dreams come true (double wow!) Because ultimately it's all about the power of love to transform the ordinary into the magical, and it's about belief - believing in the power of that love - that makes the transformation possible.
(But really - a major casting person goes to a small theater in North Hollywood to see an unknown actress in the one performance of her one woman show? Love may make miracles happen, but this is truly one for the ages.)
It's a credit to Damien Chazelle's skill as a filmmaker, I suppose, that his romantic fable succeeds in seducing us to the degree that it does. He knows the world of jazz and the industry town that is Hollywood to a remarkable degree. But the reality of making theater here and what it takes to put on a play?
Not so much, amigo. No, not so much.
ps - Here's a fun read about why no one went to Mia's solo show.