At this point, I’m just going to assume you’ve seen the movie La La Land and spare you some of the synopsis. If you’re looking for a good summary though, I would recommend Alissa Wilkinson’s review. Spoilers follow.
There are many reasons to like the movie La La Land—and Ryan Gosling donning retro ’80s clothing and playing a keytar is just one of them. That scene, in itself, is worth the proverbial price of admission. Trust me. And yet there is so much more to like about this movie.
First of all, the acting is remarkable. Speaking of Gosling, he plays a snobbish jazz musician named Sebastian (Seb) yet somehow makes the character charming and endearing. Opposite Gosling is Emma Stone who plays Mia, an aspiring actress. Stone has proven to be an expert at bringing a relatability to the characters she plays, and this movie is no different. The movie focuses on these two characters as their relationship builds and they chase their dreams.La La Land embraces the tension of living on this side of heaven, calling us to face the difficulty head on and enjoy the ride.
Some of the nostalgia of the movie was lost on me (my nerdery doesn’t extend to musicals, only to more important things like sports trivia), yet I noticed it was there. Part of this was the one take, head-to-toe musical numbers, which are visually stunning. And beyond that, the vibrant colors and the cinematography continue to draw you in as the movie develops.
Yet, the acting, the nostalgia, and the musical numbers are all just window dressing to a far bigger and better story. And this is where the spoilers come in so tread carefully if you haven’t seen the movie.
As the movie unfolds, the plotline becomes very familiar. Boy meets girl. They overcome a rocky start. They pursue their dreams. The relationship falls on hard times. But in the end, they overcome all obstacles and live happily ever after. Except, in this story, there is one big twist. They do live happily ever after… just not with each other.
And the backlash begins.
I had a friend who told me his daughter audibly screamed, “Nooooooo!” at the end. In a similar vein, one writer’s wife turned to him at the end and said, “F**k that movie!” To give the reaction to the ending a little more nuance, this writer says, “It’s divisive. Some find it wise; some find it cynical as hell.”
Steve Bezner is firmly in the cynic camp:
The song ends. Seb is emotionally spent. Mia exits. But, at the end, they exchange one last look and friendly nod. They mutually agree: We made the right decision. We chose our dreams instead of love.
And this is why I hated La La Land.
This illustrates the heart of the criticism of the movie. It seems cruel to invest the time with these characters and join them on their journey and not see them end up together. We want it all, right? We want them to have their dreams and the relationship. We want them to win it all.
La La Land vs. The Intern
I couldn’t help but think of the movie The Intern as I analyzed the ending of La La Land. In The Intern, Jules (Anne Hathaway) is a CEO of a fashion startup company and Ben (Robert De Niro) is a retired executive who interns at her company. As the movie progresses, Ben becomes a mentor, confidant, and father figure to Jules. Ben learns of the stress that the job puts on Jules and how her marriage is falling apart. Jules soon realizes that she can’t balance her work life and her home life and she needs to make some changes. As the movie closes, Jules is on the brink of stepping back from some of her responsibilities at work but ultimately decides not to. The movie ends with Jules joining Ben for a Tai Chi exercise group in the park. And as the viewer, you’re giving this sense that it’s all going to work out great.
But is it? I don’t think Tai Chi is going to magically make everything work in Jules’s life (in fairness, I’ve never done Tai Chi so maybe I’m underestimating it). Nothing has changed. Her work responsibilities are the same. She is still not going to be home as much as she needs to be. And even though her adulterous husband was shown as wanting to make their marriage work, isn’t he still going to feel alone and neglected? The Intern communicates that you can have your cake and eat it too. Unfortunately, that’s not how it always works out.
Which leads me back to La La Land. Yes, we were denied the fairy tale ending. Mia does not end up with Seb. But quite frankly, the fairy tale ending would have been just that. Perhaps it would have been satisfying at some level, but we have to acknowledge that it would have also been cheap and disingenuous. The reality is that dreams and love rarely coexist well. The situations where they do work well together is when one, or both, is somewhat sacrificed, if not entirely.
Dreams and Disappointment
Damien Chazelle, La La Land’s director, demonstrated this so brilliantly in how he closed the movie. The dream sequence at the end envisions a life where Seb and Mia end up together. Not only do they end up together but Mia is a movie star and Seb is still playing jazz like he loves. This is it, right? The best of both worlds. Not quite. In this version, Seb is playing jazz but he’s shown playing jazz in France (as he follows Mia there for her movie). He is not shown as owning a club in L.A. In fact, at the end of the dream sequence, he and Mia walk into a jazz club owned by someone else. Yes, he gets to do what he loves—play jazz—but his dream of owning a club is at least delayed, if not completely deferred. Mia gets 100% of what she wants. Seb gets maybe 60% of what he wants. And they get each other.
That’s a viable ending if La La Land were a love story. A committed relationship requires mutual sacrifice and a mutual loss of independence. Steve Bezner mentions this in his critique:
And that, I suppose, is why I ended up hating La La Land. The visionary Chazelle moved me to transcendence believing in the fools who dream, yet, ultimately, he was not able to dream of something larger. Wouldn’t the largest, grandest dream of all be capable of something more noble? In my mind, if Mia and Sebastian would have chosen to embrace the love so clearly portrayed in the film, they could have each pursued their dreams — just differently. Perhaps they would not be able to do so with the same obsessive abandon, and perhaps there would be sacrifices along the way. But they would have learned something much better than the satisfaction of attaining goals — the true nature of love has little to do with getting exactly what you want.
In the end, La La Land couldn’t dream big enough, because it did not understand that the true nature of love is not simply the pursuit of what I want. Love is, instead, about mutual sacrifice.
In the dream sequence, Seb is shown as the one sacrificing for a greater good: the continuation of their relationship. This is accurate, right, and good. There’s only one problem: La La Land is not a love story, it’s a dream story.
A Dream Fulfilled
One writer described the ending this way: “The movie doesn’t give us a dramatic ‘I choose me’ monologue; it has the good manners to just let the main characters be quietly selfish.” Is pursuing your dreams a selfish pursuit? I do feel like movies (and perhaps books as well) make the relationship the higher, nobler good. Is that true though?
Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life.” Couldn’t this verse have served as inspiration for this whole story? The real ending displays two people who made it a priority to chase their dreams and who end up finding fulfillment. They just didn’t do it together. In this way, La La Land is a true, millennial story. More and more, millennials are choosing careers before (or over) relationships. And there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. This movie provides a thoughtful, truthful representation of that sort of life and the costs associated with it. In other words, pursuing your dreams is risky. No risk, no reward, right? On the brink of her big break, Seb encourages Mia to relentlessly chase her dream saying, “You’ve got to give it everything you’ve got.” As much as Seb wants their relationship to work, he knows that Mia has too much invested in her dream to give up on it when she’s so close to achieving it. He knows her dream just may well come at the expense of their relationship. In the pursuit of our dreams, we all need someone like Seb pushing us toward a perceived greater good. Seb was willing to sacrifice their relationship not only because he wanted to see Mia achieve her dream but also because he believed in her dream. He believed she had a talent the world needed to see.
The ending of the movie is painful and bittersweet but it’s also what makes it great. The movie stays true to itself and doesn’t cave in to the pressure of what we want it to be. It also gives us permission to dream. Yet, as Christians, we know life in a broken world doesn’t always work out the way we want it. Pain, disappointment, and sacrifice are not just distant concepts we discuss but real life experiences. And this movie embraces the tension of living on this side of heaven. In the midst, it calls us to face the difficulty head on and enjoy the ride.
At one point in the movie, Mia doubts her acting abilities. Seb replies, “This is the dream! It’s conflict and compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!’