Failed to be a hater (or how I changed my mind about ‘La La Land’)
“14 Oscar nominations?” I gasped, suddenly setting my expectations for the movie too high and off the rails. The five stages of Oscar-favourite-gripe set in.
Denial: “There’s no way the ‘Titanic’ episode is repeating.” Anger: “How dare they overshadow my baby ‘Arrival’!?” Bargaining: “There must be something else, there’s no way a romantic comedy can cover so many awards…”
As a movie buff I couldn’t delay watching ‘La La Land’ any longer, especially after the Golden Globes sweep. All my friends were raving about it, the critics loved it and the awards were pouring in… Still, the bargaining kept on: it couldn’t have been just a simple film, there must have been some twist ending or high drama in it to make it rise above other greats like ‘Arrival’, ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ or ‘Moonlight’. Remaining skeptical about its actual quality, I dragged myself to the cinema to watch this supposed tripe. It’s worth mentioning now that I’m not adverse to musicals at all, I’m not one of those people, Les Miserables and Jerry Springer: The Opera being some of my favorites. I also love Damien Chazelle’s work, though I do think Emma Stone has a funny frog face and Gosling has the emotional range of a talking sandbag on camera, so I wasn’t completely unbiased.
The ending felt simple and anticlimactic, the script rather basic and the characters one-dimensional. “Sure it’s an enjoyable movie”, I complained to anyone who would listen, “but Gosling doesn’t deserve a Golden Globe just because he learned the piano and Emma Stone doesn’t deserve hers just because she can carry a tune!” No dice. After thumbing my nose at her froggy face once again, I gave the movie a 6 on IMDb, exchanged a few complaints on the internet and thought I could call it a day. But that wasn’t possible; I was in the minority of haters and my friends wouldn’t have it. “It’s cheesy and cliche,” I retorted. “You’re too grumpy,” they answered, “it’s meant to be light!” I am grumpy, but still, I was a hater and a hater’s duty is to persuade and bring people to the dark side, right? I needed back-up.
Looking for other curmudgeonly-reviewers like me on the internet I only found weak arguments against the movie. My arguments on the other hand were simply too broad and unconvincing. The first was that Chazelle’s directing is so good that it distracts from the abysmal script with dancing, flashing colors, long cuts, catchy music or visual references to classic musicals. My point was other tributes to cinema, such as Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’, used such elements sparingly, they peppered them throughout the movie too but they were still secondary to the main story. The second argument was that people tend to forgive the flaws because, as they say, it’s supposed to be light and frothy… Finally, my last argument was just a complaint: the Academy shouldn’t award yet another movie about movies, after we’ve already had ‘The Artist’, ‘Hugo’, ‘Birdman’ or ‘Argo’ in the last few years (or even ‘The King’s Speech’, as Vox argues in this video about how the Oscars’ voting process awards safe movies).
So I took it upon myself to write the ‘hater’ review that was going to end all the other positive reviews. There I was in the cinema just the other day at my second viewing, the popcorn bag empty by the end of the trailers, the soda gone by the end of the first song, and with a pencil and notepad in my hand to make sure I catch everything. (Of course I took notes while watching the movie, I wasn’t going to do a sloppy job with this negative review!) Half an hour into the two-hour movie and I had already filled a few tiny pages with sloppy pencil notes written in the dark that confirmed my beliefs and complained about characters, lines and all sorts of “cliches”. Halfway through it and Stockholm Syndrome set in. “Hey, this first half was pretty tight. Aah, but the ending will surely disappoint and give me the killer arguments for the review.” I took everything in, from the movement and framing of the camera to the sets and even to Emma Stone’s dress colors.
But all my attention to detail only made me appreciate the technical aspects of the movie more. And with the expectations of a twist ending gone after the first viewing, the story laid itself bare. I missed the forest for the trees, so to speak. The references and the dancing were the point of the movie, not distractions, since the relationship of Mia and Sebastian along with their dreams and desires were all happening in the shadows of past Hollywood giants. They weren’t one-dimensional characters, they were just passionate and naive young people surrounded by history and successful people. There was also no need for a more complex script since the movie never tries to be something else beside a simple romantic musical. Simple really was better.
By the time the credits were rolling, the notebook had long been pocketed and I was tapping my foot and humming along with the songs. I had been wrong but I didn’t mind it at all. Having learned a valuable lesson, I flipped the 6 into a 9, fired up the soundtrack for a second listen and started writing the review I never meant to… ‘La La Land’ will not be a favorite of mine and I still think Emma Stone has a froggy face, but I now truly enjoyed and appreciated a movie. I was no longer a hater. Although I’ll be supporting different movies and actors for the Oscars, there will be one less grumpy face if La La Land sweeps these too.