I have to admit that I’m not a good critic, because I suffer from a pathological condition called “movie hype”. I see a good trailer and I want to watch the movie. I see the star jocking around at the promotional interviews, and I buy a ticket to go see the movie. I read positive reviews from critics, and I already start thinking that this is the best movie of the year.
This way, by the time I actually sit in the theatre and watch the movie, my critical thinking is on “off” and I see no flaws.
This is what happened to me with La La land, I was so sure that the movie was going to be incredible that I didn’t actually pay attention to it when I went to the theatre. The great music made me want to dance, the gorgeous cinematography made me nostalgic for the good old Gene Kelly movies I used to watch when I was a kid, and the story of two talented artists trying to make it in LA and falling in love had me hooked.
But on second viewing the hype was gone, and I could clearly see that there was something I didn’t like about the movie: Seb’s character arc.
In most movies the character arc goes like this:
– a character starts out in one way
– a series of challenges test him and he learns from those experiences
– the things he has learnt allow him to pass the final test and get his goal
Seb starts out as a jazz pianist who lives in LA. He hopes to, one day, be able to open a jazz club all on his own and inspire his clients with music. He’s not a dislikable character, he’s talented and passionate, he poors his heart and soul in his music.
But he is an artis, a real artist, and as a such he feels like he shouldn’t compromise or settle for anything less than his dream.
When we first meet him he has just convinced the owner of a restaurant to give him back the job as a pianist. The only catch is that he has to compromise: instead of playing his music he has to stick to a set of Christmas songs.
But still, Seb has the chance to be payed for playing, for showing the customers of the restaurant how talented he is with a piano. So he sits, starts playing, gets frustrated with the christmas songs, decides to play something else, gets fired. Ok so he didn’t learn anything here, but that’s just the beginning.
His second odd job in the movie is to play with a band that does ’80s hits covers. Again, he has the chance to show his talent to an audience and be payed for it.
But he hates it. He confronts Mia feeling somehow insulted by the fact that she (an audience member) requested “I ran”, a song that is not up to his standards. Once again, he is given the occasion to learn how to get the best out of a not ideal situation, but nope, he gets mad. Nothing learnt here either.
Now he’s dating a girl he loves, when the chance of a lifetime knocks, Keith, an old friend, asks him to be part of his jazz band. Finally! He’ll be payed to play jazz, he’ll show everyone his talent, and become famous enough to invest in the jazz club he wants! Nope, he’s miserable again. Miserable… because according to him the band’s jazz is too pop-ish.
There is a bit of progress here, he realizes that he wants financial safety because he wants to build a future with Mia, so he compromises for the first time in the movie and joins the band. Only problem is that this comes to a screeching halt when he fights with Mia and ends up feeling ashamed for not be playing HIS music.
In the end we see that he gets his jazz club, he has a business and an adoring audience applauding his music. Well, I’m glad he got his dream, he’s talented and he deserves to have it.
But can we be real for a second? He’s not just talented, he’s also really lucky. Would he have a jazz club if he hadn’t met Keith? Or would he still be broke and begging J.K. Simmons to hire him back? What if the band didn’t become famous? What if the “Tapas and Tunes Restaurant” had sued him for vandalism? No, wait, forget about the last one, it’s a stretch.
This is the big ambition of La la land, and it ends up being its biggest flaw.
The musical numbers (like in any other musical) have the purpose to express the characters’ fellings by taking the audience to a different world full of dreams, hopes, love, and art; while the scenes in the “real world” (the one where nobody dances like a pro in the street or flies in a planetarium) are supposed to show the hardships of being an artist in today’s world.
The problem is that the “real world” of the story seems to be a lot easier to live in than our real world (for Seb at least). He is always given another chance, he never doubts his talent unlike Mia (“maybe I’m not good enough”), and most importantly he doesn’t have to change.
This is the reason why character arcs are important, the audience is usually more satisfied to see the characters work hard to change, try different strategies, ask for help, fall and get up again, rather then simply get what they want without even trying.
I loved La la land, but I would have loved it more if Seb’s arc hadn’t given me second thoughts.