La La Land

La La Land ★★½

My attention was seized, watching La La Land a second time — no longer in thrall to a flamboyance one can hardly help but find seductive — by a rather trifling detail. There’s a moment, easy to overlook amid the whirlwind of whip-pans, showtunes, and dance numbers, in which the anonymous patron of a Hollywood studio-lot coffee shop, technically uncredited but specified on IMDB as “Coffee Shop Customer #2”, approaches Mia (Emma Stone), the barista, and demands to know whether the pastry she’s just bought and evidently eaten part of is gluten-free. Mia informs her it is not. The patron, in a paroxysm of indignation, flings the now-inedible pastry to the counter on its white china plate, saying as she does so, in a voice of finely honed contempt: “Then I’d like a refund.” Mia says she needs to ask a manager. The patron duly scoffs.

Who is this woman? What does she think about? Why does she presume an ordinary pastry would be gluten-free? Or perhaps more saliently: is this what Damien Chazelle thinks of people? That they’re demanding, short-tempered and obnoxious? That they’re basically unreasonable? That they’re truculent imbeciles eager to make a fuss? Or perhaps more saliently still: what does this woman and her irrational complaint reveal of Chazelle’s limitations as a dramatist? That he prefers elementary punchlines to fully realized characters? That his writing’s often lazy? That he’d rather make a trite joke about customer-service etiquette than populate and furnish a believable world? It gives one pause, this treatment. What are the boundaries of Chazelle’s empathy? What about Coffee Shop Customer #2?

Chazelle’s much-adored Whiplash had caricatures of its own lurking on the periphery: recall the family meal among half-wits who couldn’t fathom any triumph or aspiration in which a football doesn’t centrally figure — a strictly functional scene whose only purpose was to establish its hero’s intellectual bona fides at the expense of the fools he’s doomed to suffer. In this gaudy Californian panorama there are more than a few. A procession of casting directors ignore Mia’s auditions with hyperbolic indifference. The vocalist of a cover band for whom down-and-out jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) has been begrudgingly contributing keys humiliates him with oblivious gusto. A photographer for Mojo magazine, assigned to shoot the nu-jazz group Sebastian later joins, pants and squirms like a leering Mick Jagger, arranging his subject in poses no photographer on earth really would. These characters do not exhibit plausible behaviour by design. They’re walking one-liners, objects of ridicule. These characters are simply cartoons.

Let’s return to that nu-jazz group a moment. As La La Land is a love story, and as love stories must as a rule be rent asunder, Chazelle is obliged to manufacture a crisis whose turbulence will tear his lovers apart. He finds one in John Legend, who plays a musician named Keith. Now, Sebastian has long dreamed of opening a jazz club, which he intends to do when he’s saved enough money; but as “jazz pianist” has not so far proven a lucrative vocation, that dream has time and again been prolonged. But then Keith appears. Keith is an old friend of Sebastian’s, and a great admirer, it seems, of his command of the keys — so much so that, practically on a whim, he offers him a thousand dollars a week and a cut of merch and ticket sales to join his touring band.

This is of course a lotto-jackpot windfall for a full-time pianist in 2016. But in a bid to create romantic turmoil Chazelle insists that agreeing to work with Keith is an unforgivable creative compromise: poor Keith — and one wonders how John Legend feels about this — represents artistic bankruptcy in all its meretricious magnetism, luring Sebastian toward a sham fortune and away from the integrity real jazz demands. This descent culminates in the film’s most ludicrous scene. Mia, pleased for Sebastian’s success and excited to hear his band’s music for the first time, attends one of the sold-out concerts he’s been performing for thousands night after night on tour, and is dismayed to learn that her beau’s simon-pure talent has been squandered on pop — and not only pop, but pop buoyed live by bouncy synthesizers, a scintillating laser light show, and a troupe of costumed backup dancers. Quelle horreur. Mia backs away from the spectacle in shock, never to take her lover’s music seriously again.

Leaving aside how improbable it is that Mia could have gone so long without hearing her beloved’s enormously popular band even in passing, and neglecting for the time being how hopelessly idiotic that band’s audience of grinning twentysomethings are made to seem, one must still admit that as love-imperiling crises go, the problem of the great man’s creative compromise is at once a real-world nonissue and a screenwriting cliche. Which may account for why Chazelle struggles so mightily with the argument soon entrained. The big blow-out dispute — Mia complains that Sebastian has abandoned his dream for mediocrity, Sebastian counters that she’s merely jealous of his material success — exudes logistical strain, as Chazelle contrives a fissure in a relationship where there plainly shouldn’t be one. The story doesn’t work without drama. But drama isn’t something Chazelle can really do.

What Chazelle can do is rouse and electrify: he can shoot and stage action with irrepressible panache. The reason one may leave La La Land in raptures — and perhaps the reason the film continues to enjoy such enthusiastic acclaim — is the same reason La La Land’s faults are so readily ignored. Chazelle’s strengths as director are precisely those which best conceal the weaknesses of his writing. One leaves La La Land, much as one left Whiplash, feeling elated, the mind and body stimulated by the vigour, the verve; one leaves thinking of the pair of elaborate song-and-dance routines which open the film back to back, “Another Day of Sun” and “Somewhere in the Crowd”, rather than, say, that lecherous Mojo photographer or the hackneyed dinner-time quarrel. You think of the roadside frolic in the cherry dusk. You forget about Coffee Shop Customer #2.

So one finds oneself carried away — smitten, exhilarated. That may be sensible enough. What’s odd is that La La Land is not the merry entertainment it sometimes seems to be. I won’t spoil the surprises of the last act — and especially its wordless seven-minute epilogue, which has moved some of the film’s bitterest detractors to reluctant tears — but suffice it to say those who believed Whiplash to be critical of the pursuit-of-perfection ethos espoused by its heroes will be resoundingly disabused here. Pull-quotes of the “magical!” and “romantic!” variety abound in the marketing, understandably; the film itself, by contrast, is a work of unapologetic cynicism. It’s Chazelle’s prerogative if he wants to make an ode to disenchantment. It’s only too bad his bleak perspective — well-hidden, like his deficiencies as dramatist and scribe — didn’t flatten most everything into two-dimensions within the frame.

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