Raleigh, N.C. — Earlier this week, I was on my friend Richard Averitte’s podcast People I Follow on RaleighCo.com. He was interviewing me about being a film critic and said simply “you’re a tough critic, dude.” It’s a criticism of my criticism that I hear a lot. I am nearly impossible to please.
On the show, I said in my defense, as I have said a lot in 2016, that this is an extraordinarily bad year for movies. I started working on a preliminary year-end top 10 list and could only come up with five movies that I actually liked.
This week though, I may have no excuse, because of La La Land. It’s a musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It’s getting great reviews. It’s on everyone’s shortlist as one of the best movies of 2016.
I freaking HAAAAAAATED IT!
Now look, admittedly I am not a fan of musicals, but the singing and dancing was not what I had a problem with. In fact, one of La La Land’s strength’s is it’s opening musical number in which everyone stuck in LA traffic gets out of their respective cars and break into a song about what it takes for dreams to come true.
The song is upbeat and charming. The dancing is fun to watch. At this point, I was thinking that La La Land might be for me.
The movie follows two young people. Mia (Stone) is a barrista on the Warner Brothers lot that dreams of being an actress. Sebastian (Gosling) is a pianist that strings together just enough gigs to make rent. His dream is to reopen a legendary jazz club that has since become a club specializing in the odd combination of samba and tapas.
These kids, if you haven’t guessed are destined to be together. They meet at a party in the Hollywood Hills and while walking to Mia’s car share a tap dance that for the less mature of us will evoke memories of Jerry the cartoon mouse and Gene Kelly.
As our film unfolds, we see Sebastian join a band that is on the way to stardom. He joins the band because the lead singer, played by John Legend, is supposed to be a sub-par musician compared to Sebastian. Let that sink in. In this movie John Legend isn’t a good enough piano player to outshine a skinny tie-wearing hipster.
At the same time Mia grows tired of going on auditions just to be rejected or show up and see a room full of girls that look exactly like her. Sebastian convinces her to write a one woman show. From there we see the ups and downs of creativity and romance.
So let’s dive into what I don’t like about La La Land.
The movie looks beautiful. The music is enchanting. The problem is it has absolutely nothing to say. It’s like being starving (like actually starving not “I don’t think I’ve eaten in an hour” starving) and being told “all we have is gum.”
There’s a lot to unpack with Ryan Gosling’s character Sebastian. First though, I feel like it’s important to point out that 2016 is the year that all of us who were only vaguely familiar with Gosling found out that the guy is a hoot.
The most annoying thing in this movie is that all of Sebastian’s friends call him “Seb.” Everyone knows the best nickname for a guy named Sebastian is “Sea Bass.” It’s not debatable. To call your friend Sebastian by anything other than Sea Bass is saying “I don’t care about you enough.”
Also, Sebastian spends the whole movie demanding that people be true to themselves. His attitude is that anything less than unapologetic honesty is dishonest. Yet, this character looks and feels like a silly fantasy from a high school journal.
Go back to the band he was in. They’re on the verge of stardom, but he quits the band because it’s not what he has always wanted. There’s no exploration of whether he can be happy by following an unexpected path. It’s the singular focus that psychopaths have. That may play in Steve Jobs biopics but doesn’t jive with romantic comedies.
Also, this young, skinny white guy’s obsession with old jazz and insistence that no other music has real soul just reeks to high heaven of college dude trying to get laid. But here’s the thing. La La Land director Damien Chazelle is so committed to this character trait that there’s a scene in a jazz club where Sebastian and Mia are the only white people there. They’re the only young people there. Somehow though, the whole club ends up stopping to watch Sea Bass play the piano while Mia…not so much dances really. It’s more adorably scrunching her face in time to the music.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Demetri, it’s a musical!” To that I say that musicals are built on the long tradition of stretching a thin plot as far as you can and filling in the gaps with nonsense. In order to enjoy them, you have to check expectations of reality and common sense at the door. Well sir, I say “no” and “thank you”!
Emma Stone is whatever. I mean she’s fine. She’s always fine. She got nominated for an Oscar for being “You know, not great or anything. She was fine” in The Help. Next year she’ll play Billie Jean King and in 2018 she’ll play Cruella de Ville and I’m sure she’ll be “Cute I guess. I don’t know. She was fine." It’s her calling card.
Artistically, La La Land deserves to clean up during awards season. The staging, cinematography and set design are all outstanding. They’re just attached to absolutely nothing of substance.
“Pretty with nothing to say” is what I expect to write in my reviews of movies based on Disney World rides, not odds on favorites for Best Picture nominations. But hey, what do I know right? I’m a curmudgeon behind a computer.
Go see La La Land for yourself, but trust me. If you value plot and character development you’ll hate it. If all you want out of movies is shiny, shiny, clap, clap then jump on board the “Oh my God! La La Land is the best!” train.
Demetri Ravanos is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for Raleigh and Company, Military1.com and The Alan Kabel Radio Network.