My candidate lost, and yes, I still can’t get over it. I speak of the 1997 movie “L.A. Confidential.” A riff on the creepy film-noir movies of the 1950s, its dark brilliance lay clouded in the bloated shadow of “Titanic.”
This year, another Los Angeles movie is doing a lot better. “La La Land,” a sunny musical romance, has amassed 14 Oscar nominations, tying “Titanic” and “All About Eve” (1950) for the record.
Movie critics have responded to “La La Land” with 50 shades of praise, ranging from total to grudging. What it and “Titanic” have in common are their bigness, striking special effects and pedestrian love stories.
Look, any filmmaker with the guts to make a colorful song-meets-dance movie in the year 2016 deserves a lot of credit. Grumpy me felt she got her money’s worth feasting on the Hollywood pool party and splendid West Coast sundowns — just as she appreciated the skill behind “Titanic’s” computer-generated blow-by-blow of a sinking ocean liner.
But she’s seen “L.A. Confidential,” with its devil characters and pained relationships, four times. I would not again watch “La La Land” (or “Titanic”) were it free on a 12-hour flight across the Pacific — not unless my iPad battery gave out.
Or I might just hang in for the movie’s boffo opening, a frenetic dance number on a gridlocked Los Angeles freeway. But that celebration of modern LA’s diversity of skin colors grated somewhat, for no sooner did the traffic start moving than the story dissolved into a microscopic close-up of the ambitions, frustrations, and faces of a leading couple as white as the Rockettes of 1956.
The male character’s (Ryan Gosling) obsession with the African-American art form of jazz added more dissonance to the diversity theme. Many people of color are in the background, but only one gets character development — and not much. That would be the jazzman turned ’80s retro band leader, played by real-life musician John Legend.
Nothing wrong about a story centered on white people who aren’t even ethnics. The Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals never get old. But if you’re going to make a big deal of LA’s racial and ethnic mosaic, the least you can do is give some of the other pieces a personal life.
When it comes to dancing, Gosling and the female lead, Emma Stone, are no Fred and Ginger. The music score is not Gershwin. But again, congrats to director Damien Chazelle for even doing a musical comedy, albeit without the comedy.
Good writing is what makes a movie (or television series) great. Gosling and Stone are both accomplished actors, as are Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet from “Titanic.” It’s not their fault that the dialogue is cardboard.
“La La Land’s” plotline at least takes a few interesting forks. “Titanic’s” love story plies the sea lane of soggy melodrama: upper-deck girl ditches rich but insufferable fiance for soulful artist from steerage.
“All About Eve” had one fabulously witty, out-of-the-blue line after another, many delivered with drone accuracy by Bette Davis. Can you cite one clever exchange from “Titanic”?
“Titanic” swamped the Oscars with 11 wins, including for best picture. The Academy showed there was some justice in the world by giving “L.A. Confidential” a statuette for best adapted screenplay.
At the end of “L.A. Confidential,” a prostitute styled to look like film star Veronica Lake (Kim Basinger) tells her tormented police detective lover: “Some men get the world. Others get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona.”
Love can be a twisted thing. And so can be the criteria by which the Hollywood establishment judges films. Fortunately, TV these days is great.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.