In order to really love Seb, the dashing, stubbornly romantic musician Ryan Gosling plays in La La Land, you have to love jazz. Not just the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s Christmas album, either, but traditional jazz, which, as Gosling explains in a semi-crazed monologue, is about conflict and compromise and evolution and utter exhaustion. Since La La Land is a movie, and the monologue occurs during a crucial falling-in-love scene, Gosling’s passionate, frenetic, spontaneous (wait, did I just understand jazz?) rant isn’t just about music. It’s symbolic. It reveals not only his challenging artistic taste, but his whole philosophy about love — love that sounds extremely difficult and slightly unpleasant.
La La Land is a romantic musical comedy starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, the Griffith Observatory, and tap dancing. It is set in a magical Hollywood wonderland: Traffic jams turn into Broadway performances, the lead actors float off (literally) into the stars. Love, to quote the trailer for that sappy new Will Smith movie, is the fabric of the movie and life. You’d think that in a film so devoted to the idea, love would triumph in La La Land — but (spoiler alert) then you would be forgetting that Ryan Gosling is the romantic lead. While he might be an expert at falling in love — from The Notebook to Lars and the Real Girl to Crazy, Stupid, Love to Blue Valentine to Drive — Gosling is the actor who suffers most from the condition on screen. He writhes and twists in pain; he punches walls and gets punched in the face just to have a small taste of love. He really earns it. He also seems to hate it.
If you think about Ryan Gosling (which I often do), you’ll know that it should not be so hard for his characters to find love in their movie universes, simply because they are being played by Ryan Gosling. He’s got blue eyes and is incredibly handsome. He has abs and confidence and higher-than-average emotional intelligence. He sparkles. He can see into your soul. I imagine he has very soft hands and probably smells like baby powder and fresh pine. This should be a cakewalk for him. He is the definition of charm.
But instead, Gosling continually chooses the saddest parts — like a dude who can’t connect with humans and so begins a relationship with a sex doll (Lars and the Real Girl). In The Notebook, he’s one half of a couple that fights whenever they are not making out, and in the end, he doesn’t even get to stay with his chosen partner. For Blue Valentine, Gosling moved into an IRL home with his onscreen partner Michelle Williams so that they could make their relationship more honest — and their portrayal of divorce more brutal. In Drive, he gazes longingly at Carey Mulligan and … just drives away.
Gosling is drawn to characters who don’t think they deserve love. Characters who had love but lost it and think that love isn’t something you can just replace. Characters who hold love to such a high ideal that they can’t actually participate in the experience. Characters who go to the Santa Monica Pier, as Gosling does in La La Land, and sing about how love is probably just a dream you can’t make come true. Characters who don’t follow the girl to Paris even though it’s very obvious that six months in Paris would be great for their interest in jazz and cool clubs.
Gosling, my man, why do you make this so hard? Why don’t you just let yourself feel love?
I’m no therapist, but I have some thoughts. Has Ryan Gosling possibly adopted this loner mentality because he knows how easy it is to fall in love with him? I’m sure he is just as aware of his own general physical and spiritual appeal as we are. He has a mirror; he lives with himself. Maybe that bores him, and so instead of just making us all swoon with ease, he enters every romantic situation from a place of combat. Distance is actually the way that he expresses love. He’s protecting his partner from heartbreak.
Or maybe it’s because he’s so aware of his genetic advantages that he wants to punish himself for being so handsome. Consider his approach to Lars: strange hair, weird glasses, and the horrible outerwear of a man who looks like he would order a sex doll off of the internet. Or Blue Valentine, in which he embraces a bald spot and painfully straining stomach paunch as if he knows he doesn’t deserve Michelle Williams, or love, or a belt that fits comfortably. Crazy, Stupid, Love is perhaps the saddest example of all, since he is allowed to be handsome, but then punished for it. The movie mocks his eight-pack; his character is forced to stop relying on his hot bod and actually works on becoming a “better person.” (It only sort of works.)
There’s also a chance that Ryan Gosling just doesn’t want the love because there is very little artistic credibility in playing a romantic lead. (When was the last time you watched a rom-com with an actor you’ve heard of?) To be a capital-A Actor, a guy like Gosling has to play the characters who don’t get what they want — who must work through layers and years of complex feelings and emotions and traumas with no guarantee that they will get it. He must inject an undercurrent of Serious Melancholy into a 2016 MGM Musical. He must make a charming indie romantic comedy so damn weird it’s almost disturbing. He must make a ukulele serenade both annoying and sad. He must turn his Love Lake eyes into murky, inky tortured seas. That is how you get Oscar buzz, my friends.
Pat Benatar, a singer who has surely influenced Gosling’s outlook on love, has a phrase to explain the Gosling phenomenon: “Love is a battlefield.” Rod Stewart has another: “Ain’t love a bitch.” In any case, I’m still not sure why Seb didn’t go to Paris, because the triumphant last five minutes of La La Land prove it would’ve worked out just fine. It wouldn’t have been a Ryan Gosling movie, though. You take the charm where you can get it.