For the last month, as I walk around singing the praises of Damien Chazelle’s magnificent masterpiece La La Land, I’ve found a significant divide between men and women with whom I’ve discussed the film: the men all adore it, while most of the women are far less enthusiastic.
What’s up with this? La La Land looks on the surface like a film with enormous female appeal: it stars the dreamy Ryan Gosling, one of Hollywood’s most-fetishized male actors, and is shamelessly, gloriously drenched in glowing romance. Yet the reactions of almost every woman I’ve asked about the film (with a few exceptions) have ranged from apathy to genuine dislike. I really don’t understand how anybody couldn’t love the film. I’m going to explore a few possible reasons.
1. It’s A Chazelle Problem
Damien Chazelle’s previous film, the equally wonderful Whiplash, is an overwhelmingly masculine drama, focused on Andrew and Fletcher (Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons)’s relationship of harassment and intimidation. In the film, there’s around 2 minutes of speaking time for female characters, but its overt failure of the Bechdel Test is merely a tiny flaw in a nearly flawless film. Comparing Whiplash to La La Land, one soon spots similarities in Chazelle’s treatment of his female characters: both Nicole (Melissa Benoist) and Mia are framed and shot with near-adoration, yet never glamourised beyond realism nor sexualised beyond good taste. Both women, at the same point in the films’ narratives, find themselves at the wrong end of their boyfriend’s priority list: Andrew and Seb’s passion for jazz pulls them away from their relationships (though Seb handles it with much greater sensitivity). In very similar lunch/dinner scenes, Chazelle even dresses Nicole and Mia in identical outfits as the relationships reach their weakest point: in La La Land, the audience’s sympathies are balanced more evenly. The key relationship in Whiplash isn’t between Andrew and Nicole, but that which exists between the student and his drumming teacher. Yet, in progressing to a full-scale romance, Chazelle retains much of the essence of Andrew/Fletcher in Mia/Seb, as the couple gently nudge each other towards career successes, and then flinch at the outcome. Perhaps Mia is too much a mix of Chazelle’s preferred female archetype (ie. Nicole) and his most feared male. Perhaps women recognise that no such woman as Mia, who flits between charming flirtation and ambitious determination with impossible confidence, truly exists.
2. It’s A Mia Problem
YouTube reviewer Grace Randolph has called Emma Stone’s Mia “a hateful female character”, while Empire Magazine’s Helen O’Hara characterised her as a “glorified manic pixie dreamgirl”. The textbook definition of a MPDG is “a character who exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”. I’d actually call Gosling’s Sebastian the MPDG of La La Land: being more detached from the audience, we never gain as much insight into Sebastian’s perspective on the romance. Mia, meanwhile, goes on a journey of self-discovery- aided by friction with Seb’s creativity far too layered to simply reject her as a MPDG. As we said above, however, Mia might simply be an unrealistic fictional creation.
3. It’s A Sebastian Problem
One claim I’ve heard about Gosling’s Seb- who to straight men like myself seems the dreamiest man imaginable-is that he comes across as arrogant and tiresomely self-serious to the men and women who have been in relationships with such a character. Seb does receive less-thorough vetting throughout the film; much of his motivation is quite vague; but I find his passion for jazz and suave pursuit of Mia to be absolutely adorable. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why some would consider his speech on jazz- “People say they hate it because they haven’t listened to enough”- to be relatively pretentious. The thing is: I always say things like that. If only I shared Seb’s remarkable good looks and penchant for smooth piano. So Seb’s appeal- sexual or otherwise- is targeted directly at Chazelle’s demographic: men want to be him, women don’t really care.
4. It’s A Musical Problem
This is a tricky one: some women have said they think La La Land is a good film, but a weak musical. Now nobody loves movie musicals, and has watched more, than myself. So my argument in this area is that said women have been watching the wrong types of musicals all along, and are unaccustomed to the colourful but simple delights this film offers. The songs are fabulous, and I listen to the soundtrack daily, but other than Mia’s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, they’re lacking in the intense emotional weight of- say- Frozen or Les Miserables‘ mopey songbooks. The best songs in La La Land– the rapturously optimistic “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd” and sleepily sultry “City of Stars”- are appealing because they’re uncomplicated, serving their function within the film perfectly and setting the audience’s feet tapping away. Yet outside of La La Land, these songs don’t carry much substance or spread any grand message: I’d argue that Frozen‘s “Let It Go” is overblown rubbish, but is does fulfil the criteria of many a successful chart-topping ballad. “City of Stars”– not so much. Yet none of this has much to do with gender– men like to load their iPods with bopping tunes just as much as their wives and girlfriends do. So ignore everything I just wrote.
In conclusion: it’s a matter of taste. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that I haven’t yet met a man who disliked La La Land, nor a woman who loved it. There are, obviously, thousands and thousands of women around the world who have fallen in love with this film. Yet my uncertainty in the film’s appeal being quite as broad as the media suggests has led me to place a solid bet on Moonlight for Best Picture at the Oscars. I think there’s a hidden demographic who aren’t that gaga for La La Land: straight white men can’t decide everything this year.