Don’t feel too bad for “La La Land.” It holds the record for the most Oscar nominations in history. Of the 14, it won a respectable six, including Best Actress and Best Director. It has grossed $140 million so far at the North American box office, hovering in and around the weekend top 10s since hitting theaters in December. That means people didn’t just see it out of obligation; they actually like it.
Then again, it lost eight of its Oscar noms. And it received the cruelest fate in Academy Award show history: Presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway called it for Best Picture by mistake. Everyone stormed the stage, giddy about taking home the top prize. And then a Pricewaterhouse goon stalked onto the stage and revealed the awful truth: The trophy was actually for “Moonlight,” which some argued was the year’s actual best picture. It was a scene too dark and surreal even for “The Oscar,” the terrible 1966 melodrama about frazzled Hollywood egos starring no less than “Ben-Hur”’s peerlessly wooden Stephen Boyd.
And then there’s this: If you’ve been skulking about the film wing of the Internet for the last few months, you’ll see “La La Land” has turned cinephiles into the Hatfield and the McCoys. There are those who adored it, swooned like mad, saw it again and again. Then there were those who despised it, cursed it like mad, tweeted out their anger again and again. When it became clear the Best Picture would be a battle between “La La Land” and “Moonlight,” it was painted as a battle for America’s soul: Are we the lilywhite fantasia that wants to make America great again, or are we the honest, grim yet hopeful drama about people who deserve our empathy?
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Both sides have scores of articulate defenders. We agree with bits of both extremes. Damien Chazelle’s filmmaking tries too hard. He’s no Vincente Minelli nor a Jacques Demy. Neither lead is a great singer or dancer. The opening dance number is awful, and even the pas de deux against the Los Angeles skyline is too choreographed, lacking real life or elegance. Its good vibes and superficial look at ambition and success make for a big letdown after the uncompromisingly brutal “Whiplash.” The only song we can hum is “City of Stars,” and it’s been an unwelcome earworm for months.
It also, we have to admit, got to us, despite our complaints. Emma Stone helps, moreso than Ryan Gosling. We at least half-buy the argument that it’s a nostalgia movie about nostalgia, starring two people who wish they were Fred and Ginger. They aren’t, and it’s one more failure to add to the list. Stone and Gosling’s Mia and Seb spend the majority of the film close enough to their respective dreams that their inability to grasp them eats away at them. When they do grasp their dreams, they have to do it alone, looking a lot less happy than they did when they were together. Charges that the movie is cold and unemotional, revolving around selfish characters, deflate when one of the alleged ego monsters is played by Emma Stone.
And “La La Land” knows how to close: The ending is the capper to Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” by way of the ballet from “An American in Paris” — two great things that go great together, and the only time when the references are truly inspired.
So there’s our so-called hot take. “La La Land” is neither masterpiece nor dud. It’s a frustrating film we can’t wholly endorse, but we’d be lying if we didn’t periodically get on its vibe. We’re not sorry it didn’t win the Best Picture, though we are sorry the whole team had to pile onto the stage then quickly skidaddle, empty-handed. We definitely feel terribly for Chazelle, whose shocked face after the surprise has been mocked and ridiculed by the Internet's vultures. But we definitely can’t wait to talk about anything else.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge