As Damien Chazelle’s hopeless-romantic La La Land‘s leads fall in love during the second act, jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) offers a piece of advice to aspiring actress and secret playwright Mia (Emma Stone): “You could just write your own rules. You know, write something as interesting as you are.”
This relies on the assumption, of course, that Mia is interesting. Set in present-day L.A. but bristling with the retro glam of heyday Hollywood, La La Land tells the story of two struggling artists trying to make it in the City of Angels. Sebastian, a cranky jazz traditionalist, dreams of starting a club that will revive the dying genre. Meanwhile, Mia works in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros lot while on the side she hustles to auditions with her own hopes of hitting fame. The two meet, bicker, and fall quickly in love with each other in a way that can only be described as relentlessly heterosexual. After they end up at the same ritzy party, they share a musical number and dance while overlooking the city. The purple sky and Emma Stone’s bright yellow dress evoke a royal depth of emotion. The song, which has them singing about their lack of chemistry but dancing like they’re full to the brim with it, marks the beginning of the love story.
In more ways than one, La La Land is a movie that revels in tradition and romanticizes the past. Mia and Sebastian constantly work against their respective art medium’s natural evolution forward. Sebastian can barely bring himself to play keys in his old friend Keith’s (John Legend) jazz band because it isn’t “pure jazz”; Mia hails from a love of old movies and dreams of being a classic actress. There are signs of the past clashing with the future all over the film, most notably in a scene where Keith sits down with Sebastian to convince him to join his band, and says, “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You’re holding onto the past, but jazz is the future.”
The implications of La La Land‘s message of traditionalism verses evolution is a strange choice in a movie that relies so heavily on Hollywood clichés to bolster the entertainment value. The particular cliché it relies upon is the love story itself. Far from the revolutionary art it thinks it depicts, La La Land asks the audience to accept a variety of well-worn love story plot points as emotional catharsis. The relationship between Mia and Sebastian is presented to us as a harrowing love story for the ages, but it’s all bark and no bite–and worse, the bark is one we’ve heard over and over and over and over again. To put it plainly, it’s a movie made about straight people for straight people, and it shows.
Despite Gosling and Stone’s serious attempt to breathe life into their respective roles, their characters are basic, airbrushed stereotypes. Of course the girl is a sweet young thing with a dream of being an actress, because what little girl doesn’t want to do that? (Hint: most of us.) Sebastian is the next in a line of mansplaining music nerds for whom “loving music” is shorthand for a depth that doesn’t actually exist on the page; he’s a pale re-imagining of the romantic wandering artist who we’re supposed to love because of his passion, or something, despite that he fails his girlfriend time and time again without any good reasons.
The interactions between them are old favorites for straight couples; the bickering-lovers trope is so familiar for on-screen relationships between men and women that it necessitates the great acting to give it any juice, and even then it’s a bit sleepy. We are asked over and over again to pity Sebastian even though all of his problems could be solved by him just, I don’t know, not being shitty. They fight because Sebastian spends too much time on the road, and of course it’s Mia who is demanding that her deep artistic man sacrifice his dreams and settle down, which is every straight man’s worst nightmare I guess. They break up because Sebastian didn’t come to her play (couldn’t you have just called? Oh, are you “just bad at that stuff”?). Then, in a move truly representative of vintage Tinseltown boyfriends (and a move that we are clearly supposed to find romantic), Sebastian drives all the way to her hometown in Colorado where she has moved back in with her parents, demands that she get in the car with him and let him drive her back to California, and doesn’t listen to her when she tells him that she has given up on that dream, full-stop. (Imagine a female character doing this to a male character. I don’t think so.) Of course this midnight ride (fun fact: it would have taken him around 18 hours non-stop, again, couldn’t you have just called?) eventually works out in her best interest, because heteronormativity demands that we believe a man’s love for a woman redeems him just by virtue of just existing.
Even the costumes were designed with heterosexuality in mind: costume designer Mary Zophres noted, “I wanted women in the audience to be wooed by Ryan, and the men to feel romantic about Emma.” The presumed straight audience is supposed to be able to insert themselves into either Mia or Sebastian and find something institutionally romantic in the other to placate them. It’s a relationship that’s manufactured to be empty even though it’s in a movie about finding purpose.
This isn’t to say that straight characters equate to empty characters, but rather that writers of straight romances often use only basic skeletons to write their stories. Basic skeletons aren’t sustainable, even for those of us with the privilege of seeing ourselves in Mia and Sebastian. I saw the movie with my long-time partner, and, my bisexuality notwithstanding, we look a lot like the leads. We live in Los Angeles. We consider ourselves artists. We have dreams of “making it.” But even for us, there were enough trite scenes that didn’t deliver, and the “passionate” love story was nonexistent. They assume we know that Sebastian leaping up to drive to Colorado is romantic and they assume we understand that Mia, after being broken by Hollywood cruelty, is desperate for this man to save her. And we do understand–because we’ve seen this story before. I could insert myself into it if I wanted to, but the story hardly gave me a reason to want to in the first place; neither of them were “interesting” at all, to us or even, it seemed, to each other.
There are certainly other ways to poke holes in La La Land; Gosling playing the white savior of jazz is one criticism worth looking into, and jazz’s unfortunate place as the butt of the joke has a place in this as well. Paste Magazine also has a phenomenal article called “The Unbearable Whiteness of La La Land,” which goes into detail about how the movie represents white nostalgia/escapism and how that functions at the close of this politically turbulent year. These are worth mentioning here because they are also all reasons the movie falls flat to audiences that long not for the past but for the present, and even the future, where they can see themselves, their friends, and their families on screen. In the same breath that La La Land asks its audience to examine tradition, it also celebrates everything traditional about romance, including using a run-of-the-mill straight couple as its major focus.
Unlike jazz, it seems like the Hollywood clichés that propel the movie forward aren’t dying. The Golden Globes basically proved that when it lied down and let La La Land walk all over it; the movie left the awards show last Sunday taking with it all seven awards for which it was nominated. Perhaps the polar opposite to this movie was Moonlight, a three-part story about a black man’s journey about self-acceptance and sexuality. Moonlight took home the best drama motion picture award, an award many are saying it won because La La Land was conveniently in the category of best comedy or musical picture. Meanwhile, Moonlight has the same run of indie-film-turned-award-winner that Chazelle’s previous pictures have had and delivers on a story that is authentic to the characters in the way good stories are supposed to be. Tradition is examined and reframed. Characters are complete and not skeletons. Old conceits are made fresh.
It’s hard to pinpoint my exact frustrations with the movie when the current relationship I’m in can be read through the lens of heterosexuality pretty easily if you don’t know me. But I criticize it’s straightness because I am dissatisfied nonetheless. I am dissatisfied that I was made to watch a two hour movie that is a relative rainbow experience without any queer characters in it at all. I am dissatisfied that the relationship I did get to see was poorly written and pulled upon tropes of love and romance that are only allowed for heterosexual leads. I’m dissatisfied because the real L.A. that I know has queer people everywhere, falling in love with art and each other, taking risks and trying new things, improvising on old traditions because evolution is what kept our communities alive in the first place.
Retro pop-art Hollywood is fun to look at, but it doesn’t actually look like L.A., and it doesn’t actually look like the world. The closest we got to that was the incredibly diverse opening number, and neither Emma Stone nor Ryan Gosling were even in that at all.