“Well, that was a pretty lively movie,” said one viewer on leaving a Monday screening of La La Land at the Landmark theater in West Los Angeles. Lively. Charming. Original. Heart-warming. Even inspiring.
But is Damien Chazelle’s tribute to show business romance and ambition the stuff of an Oscar-winning Best Picture? Many in the media seem to think so. Earlier on Monday, the intrepid correspondents of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association showered the film with seven Golden Globes nominations, the most of any film this year, including one for best musical or comedy. The song-and-dance musical had just won the Critics’ Choice Award for best picture from the Broadcast Film Critics Association and Broadcast Television Journalists Association.
Soon, however, La La Land will have to turn, or twirl, or something, to face a very different set of judges: Those 7,000 or so members of the increasingly international Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, many of whom still are smarting the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and are eager to re-establish their socially conscious bona fides. Guild nominations and awards likely will settle whether La La Land is artful enough to qualify for the Oscars. But whether it is serious enough remains a question for a post-election cultural future that is still taking shape.
If escapism is the Trump-era order of the day, La La Land is home free. No other film in contention even pretends to lift us quite so far above the dreary realities of over-clogged streets and under-fed job prospects. If Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling can dance past it, dammit, so can we!
Still, it’s hard to remember any film quite so slight coming up the winner on Oscar night. The closest recent comp, of course, is The Artist, another show business romance that won Best Picture in 2012. But that film had two covert advantages. One was its cagey approach to casting: The movie was deliberately populated with beloved character actors whose presence was detected and honored by show business voters. The other was its subtle but real subtext: The screen story, about a silent film star weathering the transition to talkies, was seen as lesson for the contemporary movie business, as it struggled with its shift to digital values.
Birdman, which won the top Oscar in 2015, was, like La La Land, a show business fable without much in the way of grand social consequence. But it struck a little deeper into the wonderfully twisted psychology of the actor’s craft — questions about sanity, suicide and survival were all on the table. By contrast, La La Land cuts about as deep as one of its airy role models, An American in Paris, which danced to a Best Picture Oscar in 1952.
Since then, Oscar voters generally have required at least a bit of weight in their winners. Spotlight, 12 Years A Slave, Argo, The Departed, The Hurt Locker, No Country for Old Men, The King’s Speech, and even Slumdog Millionaire had gravitas, to one degree or another. La La Land is content to float above it all; and the next two months will tell whether that is what these times, in Hollywood’s view, require.