How La La Land Failed to Earn Its Ending

How La La Land Failed to Earn Its Ending February 22, 2017

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone

WARNING: Spoilers abound! If you haven’t seen La La Land yet, run to the theater and do so; then come back here so we can argue about it.

I love old movies, and in particular, I love old musicals. Back when I had cable, my DVR was regularly full of classic (and not-so-classic) musicals recorded off TCM. I don’t mind the lame plots (invariably: engaged people get un-engaged from the wrong people and then engaged to the right people) or the inexplicable bursting into song and dance. So when I first saw a trailer for La La Land, I put its opening date on the calendar and told my wife Anne that for my birthday, I wanted tickets. We went and saw it in its first week. I expected to love it. And parts of it I did love. I’d even say that I enjoyed the ending. But I walked away from the theater feeling like they’d missed an opportunity. The whole movie led up to an ending that felt like taking the easy way out.

“Now wait!” you might be saying. (I did mention there’d be spoilers, right? Cause spoilers start now.) “They didn’t give us the unrealistic fairy tale ending! They gave us real life! How is that the easy way out?” Fair questions. But I question whether the ending we saw was actually real life, or if it was simply the assumption of what real life must be. I don’t mind bittersweet endings. But a movie has to earn its ending, and I don’t think La La Land earned the one it had.

It could be said that the whole first part of La La Land asks the question, “Is it possible to devote oneself to one’s dreams and still make room for love?” The tension of the film revolves around that question, as we see Mia and Sebastian fight together for each other’s dreams even as they struggle to find a balance between their relationship and their vocations. After Mia drives back home and leaves L.A. behind, Sebastian drives out and convinces her to give it another shot. When she’s given the chance to star in a film in France, Sebastian tells her that she has to devote herself 100% to the opportunity.

Then we cut to five years later, where Mia is happily married and has a child with someone who is not Sebastian. In doing so, we cut out the most important part of the movie. Because there is nothing we’ve seen in either character’s actions up to this point that suggests they will simply let things go at that. There’s nothing to suggest that when Mia moves to France, she won’t even bother to keep in touch with Sebastian. Sure, it’s conceivable that they’d lose touch, break apart. But in skipping ahead five years, the film simply assumes the viewer is in the know – of course, this is the way life works. People drift apart. Work takes priority. You make new relationships.

And that’s where I see the laziness. Because in my experience, that is not the way life inevitably works. It sometimes does, yes, and it would have been fine to tell the story of how it did. But sometimes people fight to make relationships and jobs work. Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they fail. Despite Sebastian’s insistence that Mia devote herself completely to her work, it’s clear that she was willing to put work into some kind of relationship – you don’t usually just drift into marriage and kids. To leave it as a fuzzy bittersweet inevitability is too much of a shortcut.

I will confess that my personal convictions about marriage come into play here. I know that in the final scenes I’m supposed to feel wistful and heartachey. But I don’t. I feel annoyed that Mia’s husband has been turned into a cardboard cutout, a foil for the real romantic story of what might have been. There’s every indication that Mia’s marriage is a genuine one, and I get that that tension is supposed to be there. But during the admittedly glorious dream sequence, the pastor inside me wants to shout, in the immortal words of Bob Newhart, “Stop it!” Yep, maybe I’m being too moralistic, but daydreaming about past relationships is not something I find particularly healthy for a marriage, and it’s hard for me to sympathize.

The parting look at the end between Mia and Sebastian contains worlds of unspoken might-have-beens. It also contains worlds of assumptions about what is allowed to constitute a satisfying ending in modern cinema. The bittersweet, we’re-OK-and-that’s-enough ending – this is the sophisticated ending. Subverting expectations has itself become the new norm, and I was disappointed that the film took that well-trodden path rather than striking out for new territory that was neither the cliché of yesteryear nor the cliché of today. (And no, I don’t know exactly what such an ending would have looked like.)

To be fair, this kind of ending isn’t actually new – it’s been around for decades, even stretching back into the golden age of film. But it’s not the ending for the kind of movie I hoped I was watching – an unapologetic throwback to the populist movie musicals of the thirties and forties and fifties and sixties, a movie that might even revive musicals for normal people. Instead, it was a good enough film for the kind of people who like that kind of film (and I do!), but not a revolution. In the end, maybe it’s my own fault for expecting too much. I won’t begrudge it any Oscars it may win this Sunday, but I’m left feeling disappointed at what could have been. (And hey, maybe that means the film had its intended effect on me after all.)

UPDATE: A “real-life broadway couple” agrees that Mia and Sebastian could have made it work, so clearly I’m right.

(Photo credit: Dale Robinette / Lionsgate / Summit Entertainment)

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  • Erik Martin

    They tried to give us a Casablanca ending, but I think what you and others have said points to the difference where in Casablanca the husband was a fully-establish character, and in this movie, not allowing the time to establish the husband as a character ended up being important for how it made us feel.

    However, I had a big difference of interpretation of the dream sequence. The dream sequence was Seb’s song. It was his fantasy about what might have been. In that fantasy he had more time to support her dream as an actor instead of fully following his dream as a musician; in that fantasy, he doesn’t own the club; but they visit the club together. But importantly, it was the fantasy of a single man, not the fantasy of a married woman. Mia understood what he was saying with his song, but it wasn’t her fantasy. And to me, the look at the very end was not a look primarily about what might have been, but a look of gratitude and acceptance for each other’s role in their lives, despite not being meant to be. Despite the song, they were both living the lives they wanted. They were both content. So to me it was a happy ending, though I definitely had to suspend disbelief about the cardboard husband.

    • Interesting – Anne saw the final scene that way as well. I still think it was a mutual fantasy, but maybe I’m wrong. I do think the final glance was one of contentment, but a contentment with a wistful longing attached to it.

      That was one of two big differences in interpretation that Anne and I had. She felt that at their parting scene (when Sebastian told Mia to go and focus on her career), there was still tension from the awful things Sebastian said to Mia in their fight (that she liked him better as a failure). He had the opportunity to apologize and ask for forgiveness, and if he had, she might have tried to make it work. But he didn’t, and so she rightly left – it was on him to make the relationship work if possible, and by telling her to focus on her career (rather than apologizing for his behavior), he was shutting that door.

      • Erik Martin

        Interesting. That didn’t occur to me, just that the lifestyles they needed to live made them incompatible for being married to each other.

      • SMD

        Not sure I agree with that interpretation. The film departed from itself, for me, not in the 5 years later sequence, but when she tells him the film will be in Paris–as you say Coleman, it seemed to me a sudden serving up of super-ego dispassionate externally-driven narrative of supposedly “What rational modern people do and say.” She says she’ll be in Paris for untold years (just as he would have been on the road for untold years with his band–the difference supposedly being he did not have his heart in the band, and she did have her heart in the film, so it was not only ok for her to more or less blithely abandon love in pursuit of career goals) and it is supposedly understood immediately by both of them that she would do her thing, and he would find whatever his thing was.

        The alternate scenario was not his, but hers, That piece of music was important to both of them. That’s why he played it. In the alternate scenario he did have some kind of music thing going on–he was supposed to be actualized–they both were–but more materially modestly, in a less conventional, freer, more bohemian life, where they were far more passionately loving and vibing with each other than the “real” (successful and happy enough, but somewhat more life-dampened or deadened) couple.

  • Eliza Genzlinger

    I went to see it with a group of ladies, they were all disappointed. I was too. I really enjoyed the movie, but didn’t like it and didn’t love the ending. It felt like an unhappy ending and I don’t like movies with unhappy endings. The child in the end of the “real ending” was being left (yet again it seemed) with the nanny while the couple went off enjoying their real life. In the Seb ending the child looked like it had a baby sitter for the one night out the couple got (realistically infrequently.) That is to say nothing of the confusing -Did they or didn’t they end up unhappy and without their true love.

    • Alison Cole

      Mia is married, so she’s with her true love. It’s not an option to second guess that.

      • SMD

        That’s an absolutely bizarre comment.

        • This is a little borderline for my (admittedly unstated) comment policy – I’m happy to air disagreements but I’d prefer something more substantive – but since I suspect Alison knows that her perspective will be taken as strange I’m happy to let it through and leave it up to Alison whether she wants to respond.

          • SMD


  • Learning Curve

    Here’s my romantic idealist reaction followed by my cynical reaction to La La Land’s bittersweet ending:

  • SMD

    What I found (I just finished watching it) most disturbing about this film is it goes way out of its way to underscore again and again that (1) love and (2) following your heart, your passions, and your truest convictions, and pursuing and actualizing the highest manifestations of your own unique vision and talents–however difficult, or seemingly implausible or unrealistic–is the principle reason for living in an otherwise shallow desolate cruel world. That, if you find and live in love and manifest the best of what you have to offer the world of yourself, and hold onto that throughout your life, it’s not only the most true and desirable, virtuous, and meaningful way to live life, BUT doing so is what keeps alive and passes along to others the spark of hope, love, and inspiration for living. The movie until the ending was an ode and an encouragement: “Here’s to the lovers, the believers, the dreamers!” Lovers, not only meaning romantic love of couples, but Lovers in the sense meant by the Romantic poets–not “eros” but “agápe” — those who fully love and embrace the essence of love, living, that which is alive, god, humanity, beauty, etc.
    For LaLa Land to end as it did—and I strongly suspect that one or more of the producers forced this ending for the film to be more edgy and “realistic,” although I did just read the convoluted, unconvincing reasons the director gave for ending the movie as he did–is to say: you’re an idiot if you believed anything that came before, except those parts when the characters were shattered, broken, compromised, and began to lose faith in themselves, love (or God or god), and relinquished hope that “growing up” is not synonymous with losing idealism, passion, belief.
    It didn’t seem sophisticated as much as, agreeing with Coleman Glenn, a different kind of contemporary trite. A capitulation to darkly wry, ironic, more bitter than sweet, faux-wistfulness and basically replacing (I know this may be reaching) the notion of the unfathomable miracle of God, with a rather silly, entree-nous wink toward the splendor of an abstraction of “magic,” which we know, ultimately is a trick—a delightful one, but not reality.
    The more I write, the more I realize I despise this film, and it’s punishing ending. The more a viewer would suspend their disbelief to go with it, the harder the body slam. It reminds me of that game that some adults used to play with kids growing up—where you’d put your hands out in front of you and they’d put their hands under yours and then slap your hands—and it was supposed to be funny or fun, or teach you to be quick on your feet and not get too trusting.
    Rotten flick. If it had just stuck with the trials and tribs of romantic love—as with, say, Annie Hall, and had not gone so far in rhapsodizing about the collective-human-soul-saving necessity for people who believe to exist and to create and live with conviction—it would not be so cruel. As is, it felt like a club to the solar plexus to me.