Lazytown: The failings of La La Land

It’s awards season again, and if you didn’t tune in to see La La Land snag seven Golden Globes, you probably heard about it from your mom and every guy in your film class. The contemporary musical, which follows the relationship between two 20-somethings in Los Angeles—one an aspiring actress, one a jazz pianist with dreams of owning his own club—might just be the most overhyped film of the season. It was widely lauded for its beautiful visuals, appealing characters, and originality. However, what all the praise overlooks is that beyond its catchy dance numbers and charismatic leading duo, La La Land is a spectacularly lazy movie. 

A frequent accolade heaped on La La Land is that it is refreshingly different from any other movie musical. But beyond its modern setting, it fails to distinguish itself as a unique installment to the genre in any other way. Musicals frequently follow the love affairs of couples who initially dislike each other, so protagonists Sebastian and Mia (played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, respectively) are not unique in that sense. We’ve seen hesitant romance in everything from the Pajama Game to Beauty and the Beast. And La La Land might not segue into singing with the awkward, unexpected bravado of old Hollywood musicals, but subtle transitions have been common practice in the genre since the 60s.

The film’s plot is also nothing new. You would be hard-pressed to find any musical from the last 50 years that doesn’t involve, to some degree, a relationship between a young, white, heterosexual couple. Some say the movie is unique because Seb and Mia don’t ultimately end up together, but this argument doesn’t hold water. Unhappy endings are almost as commonplace as happy ones in musicals. From Sweeney Todd to the aptly titled Les Misérables, misery makes for as compelling a musical as joy does. 

But what is perhaps most offensive about La La Land is that it does not investigate the themes of either misery or joy. It neither explores modern sadness nor the ecstasy of accomplishing one’s dreams. The happiness of the characters hinges solely on their romantic relationships. It’s an incredibly outdated theme for such a contemporary piece. The danger here isn’t that a relationship occurs—it’s the deeply rooted heteronormativity of that relationship. 

There isn’t anything wrong or unusual about a man and a woman falling in love. However, in the montage sequences toward the end of the film, which shows all the possible outcomes of Mia’s life, she always becomes a wife and a mother. Whether she ends up with Seb or the other milquetoast guy she ultimately marries, there’s a ring on her finger and a nostalgic medium shot of her at the peak of a pregnancy. All that’s missing is the white picket fence. La La Land forces Mia’s future to culminate in her settling down and having her partner’s kids—it can’t imagine anything else. And for a film that’s so supposedly progressive, that smacks of internalized misogyny, a lack of creativity, and just plain laziness on the part of writer and director Damien Chazelle.  

While the songs are catchy and the cinematography is breathtaking, La La Land brings nothing new to the table. For all of its modern quirks, it’s still a very traditional musical where boy meets girl. Mia is supremely boring, with no real interests besides her acting career alongside an insipid and undeveloped subplot about an aunt who never accomplished her dreams. Sebastian’s character has a more interesting role; Gosling’s performance makes his passion for jazz feels occasionally tangible. (While the film’s issues with race are a whole other article, it’s worth mentioning here that for a movie about a cultural art form like jazz, it is overwhelmingly white.) However, one mediocre character in a film populated by completely forgettable people is hardly enough to justify a musical. Stone and Gosling are both talented actors, and with such star power, it’s easy to project the public personas of the cast onto their characters. But this is only a diversion for audiences to convince themselves that Stone’s sassy delivery and Gosling’s intensity are actual character traits. 

Was La La Land a terrible movie? No. It was fun to look at and and listen to, and its plot was simple and completely undemanding of its viewers. It was well-paced and well-acted, with occasional moments that felt genuine. But as consumers, we should not have to settle for non-controversial pleasantry as the “film of the year.” Musicals have a history of challenging our expectations, telling epic stories, and subverting the status quo. Cabaret was nominated for best picture because it was political, romantic, and explored queerness and identity in an unprecedented way. Hamilton has drawn massive audiences for its sharp wit and empowering reclamation of American history by people of color. La La Land is pretty. In failing to deliver even an original plot, it proves that most audiences are willing to overlook insultingly lazy filmmaking if it sings. In that sense, it’s a movie that fully lives up to its title.