Dancing while D.C. burns

I'm bracing myself for a voting outcome that may be difficult to make peace with. This year, of all years, I find myself craving a winner I can get behind. But the Academy Awards seem determined to bestow a relatively unimpressive candidate with the highest honor in the film industry.

There are other more substantial nominees. The poignant Moonlight or the elegiac Manchester by the Sea would top my list as films that speak to the challenges of the human condition in transcendent, original ways. They both received a significant number of Oscar nominations (eight and six, respectively). But the tsunami of love seems attached to the navel-gazing La-La-Land, which was nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards.

I'm a film lover and an unabashed fan of Hollywood, and I tried to like La La Land. I did. But after seeing it twice (yes, twice, to be sure I hadn't missed something essential the first time), I'm baffled that this charming trifle could be inspiring so many accolades. It feels like a social media phenomenon gone wild, having whipped up its own narrative spin of success. Dare I say, fake news? 

The film is not awful; it's just not all that special. It has a single, sweet thread of two charismatic leads falling in love and putting their careers first to the possible detriment of their long-term romance. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sing and dance with a modicum of skill meant to represent the struggling artists that they portray. Meet cute. Fall in and out of love. Oh, what could have been. 

I get it. But there was no real there there. The film felt a little immature actually, as if it hadn't fully ripened or didn't know exactly what it wanted to be. Even Saturday Night Live riffed on the overblown reviews that La La Land garnered, seemingly splitting the country in half over the film's lovers and haters. Wait, this is sounding awfully familiar.

In a year when Donald Trump has become president of the United States, I've started to wonder if my innate understanding of what is right, wrong, or important, has met its match. My foe? A substantial portion of the American public that seems more interested in pablum than facts. Or, in the case of La La Land, more captivated by twirling romantic facades than deep storytelling. Something is afoot when the strangest of bedfellows—Hollywood and our 45th president—seem more alike than different, treading hollow steps on hallowed ground.

Both Trump and La La Land have a flair for big opening numbers and extraordinary hype. Trump plastered his name on tall buildings, casinos, and golf courses to prove his worth, then used Celebrity Apprentice as an entertainment platform, making his followers believe that he alone could make or break the best businessmen (or women) in the world. His bullhorn has been loud and persistent, outshouting his naysayers regardless of the facts.

La La Land opened with a cheesy song-and-dance number on an L.A. freeway, setting the stage for grand musical numbers that didn't materialize again until late in the film. The jingle-jangle songwriting of the opening sequence played like a mediocre 1970s television commercial complete with yellow polka-dot dresses and hula hoops. It didn't set any sort of real tone for the rest of the film's musical approaches, which were typically more pensive and yearning—or even nonexistent for long stretches of the film. Throw in a few other random scenes, such as the lovebirds dancing in cartoonish silhouette against the night sky at a planetarium, and the whole movie felt a bit like a musical experiment gone awry.

An homage to old musicals? Maybe. An innovative breakthrough film? Not really. The movie seemed more like a series of awkwardly stitched-together sequences, a Twitter-like concatenation meant to signal a new-age musical. The film has some interesting moments, but is generally uneven. It feels more mishmash than masterpiece.

Still, the film's diehard supporters seem to have given it an "A" for effort, apparently for trying something different (a musical! wow!). In the company of Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, two extraordinary nominees for Best Picture, La La Land stands out mostly for its love of self. 

I understand the need for entertainment designed to take us away from our troubles for a few hours. And boy, ain't we got some troubles. But to elevate La La Land above its station is to discount the great films that have come before it and the better films yet to come.

Cue our man in Washington, President Trump, who, by God, also gets an "A" for effort. This man actually imagined he could be president and went out and put on an uneven spectacle of his own. You have to give him that. He's also managed within the first chaotic month of his presidency to showcase his own brand of immature and jumbled leadership. He's issued executive orders that are so sloppily written that they don't stand up in court, he's had to fire his National Security Advisor for dishonesty, and he's proclaimed the media the "enemy of the people" in a republic that relies on the free press to function. This is not a good opening act. And yet, Trump has the undying support of adoring fans, who elected him to the highest office in our land.

Fair enough. Trump is president. La La Land may win a slew of Academy Awards. But neither one represents the best that America has to offer. History will be the final arbiter of that.

For now, the show must go on. I'm thinking of this moment in American time as a sort of meet cute, a production cooked-up in some greedy producer's office: Donald Trump meets La La Land. Here's hoping that we wake up from the dream sequence before it's too late. As long as we're smart enough not to entertain ourselves to death, we should be fine.