In Praise Of 'La La Land's' Imperfect Perfect Ending


For those entering this piece without having bothered to read the bold marquee-sized headline hanging from above, the following piece contains asteroid-sized spoilers regarding the film “La La Land.” We’re talking HUGE, BUG-EYED, FIRE-BREATHING SPOILERS. If you have not yet seen “La La Land” and desire to breathe it in unspoiled, please turn back now. Come back later. We’ll save you a seat. Consider yourself forewarned. We now ask that you take this moment to silence your cell phones. The main feature is about to begin. ― The Management

Everyone I have spoken to about “La La Land,” one of this year’s frontrunners for best picture, has an ironclad opinion about it and fall into one of two camps. The first camp is filled with those who embrace it and gush that it trips the Technicolor light fantastic. And those stationed in the other camp are those who say they were enjoying it until the last act when it tripped all over itself, bloodied its perfect nose and chipped its perfect teeth as it drew to a melancholy and unsatisfying conclusion.

I understand these La La lambasters. What viewer wouldn’t want Emma Stone’s Mia, a struggling barista who hops from one sadistic audition to another hoping to become the next Hollywood starlet, and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, a jazz playing piano player who has devoted his life to a dying musical form, to end up together?

If hot-buttered fairy tales are what one is seeking, “La La Land” is not the cinematic experience that is going to quench that thirst. It’s not that both characters don’t achieve their respective dreams by the end credits. Mia becomes the star she has struggled her whole life to become. Sebastian opens the jazz club he has daydreamed about forever. Where “La La Land” breaks with formula is its tinsel-free portrayal of the slow, painful erosion of the connection between the two of them as all the things they’ve ever wanted become the very things that wind up dividing them and tearing them apart.

Langston Hughes once asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” 

“La La Land” asks, “What happens to the dream that is not deferred, to the dream that is attained, but comes attached to deep and painful sacrifices?”

The answer to that particular question exists in the longing and ache buried in Mia’s eyes when she ducks into a jazz club with her husband and finds her former love and muse Sebastian at the keys. The regret in her eyes as she watches Sebastian hit the ivories and begins to lose herself in misty-eyed reverie of what might have been says more than a thousand additional pages of screenplay ever could.

Let’s suppose for a moment that “La La Land” had ended with a more traditional Hollywood ending: Mia and Sebastian’s eyes meet across the smoky Jazz club floor. Mia becomes emotionally overwhelmed at the weight of the moment and instinctually heads to the club’s exit. Sebastian sees her leaving and stops mid-song to the astonishment of the audience and races after her. It is pouring buckets of rain outside, because as even the most casual filmgoer can attest it is always pouring buckets of rain in scenes such as these. Sebastian reaches Mia just as she’s about to be whisked off by a cab. Sebastian calls her name. Mia turns and rushes into Sebastian’s arms for a long embrace and a lingering kiss. Fade to black.

That conventional ending would have most likely worked fine for the average moviegoer. It also would have stuck with them for about as long as a freshly popped peppermint flavored Breath Saver. Instead, “La La Land’s” more downbeat ending is not a “bummer” but a reflective river that stirs up memories about the people who have come in and out of our lives at a certain time or place and end up becoming the bridges to who it is that we eventually become.

They move on.

You move on.

But you remain connected always.

Perhaps that’s not the perfect Hollywood ending, but it’s not such a bad one either.