How much should a film be commended for being what it’s not? It’s the first thought I experienced after walking out of the cinema last weekend, as I tried to comprehend the love that’s been directed towards La La Land over the last few months. There were too many nods to Gene Kelly and other instances of familiarity and outright déjà vu for it to be regarded as something ground breaking, but it has one characteristic that prevented me feeling hostile towards it. It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact moment when ironic in-jokiness for its own sake became venerated, even if substance was otherwise absent, and La La Land is refreshingly lacking in the gruesome, artless knowingness that afflicts so many movies of the last few decades.
Given that I am predisposed in certain ways to liking this film, and factoring in my unabashed love of musicals, I should offer at least a half-hearted case for La La Land to mop up the gongs it’s been nominated for and already won. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are certainly excellent, and a perfect pairing here, respectively as an aspiring actress and a musician on a mission to save jazz. To be able to carry a film while travelling light is always an impressive acting feat. They become very light when one of their dates takes them to the Griffith Observatory, a sequence which has an undeniable romantic flair about it. And the film is strewn with moments of charming humour, such as the poses an English photographer draws from Gosling during a photo-shoot for John Legend’s cheesy jazz-pop band he plays with.
And yet, it is difficult to work out what was actually driving the film after the first hour, or to be more accurate, what permitted the story to be dragged out so much after the relationship was established. There’s a flimsiness to the story and the characters that the heroic efforts of the leading actors don’t fully succeed in concealing. That’s not to mention other documented criticisms. Certainly, watching a white guy mansplaining jazz and his responsibility to save it was a bit awkward to endure. The subsequent plotline dealing with his musical sell out would have felt like a familiar routine, but for the scene where we see his band play a concert, where our jazzman’s retro milieu didn’t quite seem such a travesty. Even the celebrated first scene feels in retrospect like a false trailer, out of sync with what follows. And for all the acclaim it has received for elevating a supposedly neglected genre, it might not even true to say that La La Land has resurrected musicals.
It’s also been remarked that La La Land attained pole position in this awards season because it’s set in Los Angeles and it’s about show business. The recent roll call of decorated films – The Artist, Hugo, Argo, Birdman – would seem to bear that out. That would arguably make it a deserving target for mild resentment, but it is difficult to muster outright contempt for La La Land, if only because it soars when set alongside the spectacular, heroic, mind bending awfulness of Crash, a film that also benefited from an LA setting. While that film definitively devalued the already questionable cachet of the Academy Awards forever, for this writer it also means that there is little reason to whip up confected rage over dubious winners in the future.
So I won’t be staying up on Oscars night wondering who won what, and I won’t be in any way perturbed by a La La Land coronation. It’s almost as magical as The Artist. It has a comparable amount of directorial dash as Slumdog Millionaire. It represents a far better reason to head down to the cinema than The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech. There is little reason to let its success influence your view of it, or to elicit a heated response. It’s a reasonably decent, watchable movie. It’s just not a great movie.
I have to finish with a word about John Hurt, who died a few weeks ago. Hurt was the first actor I saw who could totally inhabit a character, such that you could forget who the actor was. Thoughts on his career called to mind an interview I once saw with Martin Scorsese, in which he advised people making their way in the movie business to take all the work they can get, and not be picky and “wait for the right project”. Hurt wasn’t the kind to say no to work, and he wasn’t too sniffy about material. And yet he was never diminished as an actor by any role he took or any film he appeared in. Since his breakthrough landmark roles in the 1970s he was among the most reliably brilliant screen presences this writer can recall. Revisiting his oeuvre will always provide satisfying pleasures.