Why People Are Fighting Over the Surprise Ending of 'La La Land'

La La Land Movie Ending

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the movie La La Land and discusses the ending of the movie in detail. Reader discretion is advised.

"Here's to the ones who dream," sings Emma Stone during her big number in La La Land, the acclaimed musical likely to pick up awards at this Sunday's Golden Globes. It's an inspiring, populist message that has driven the movie to box-office success: This one's for the strivers, the rebels, and the "real" artists. La vie boheme, you know?

But over the past few weeks, as the Oscar talk has heated up, director Damien Chazelle's love letter to Los Angeles has become a whimsical lightning rod for conversations about mansplaining, whitewashing, and, of course, jazz, baby! Then there's the ending, a dream-like narrative flight of fancy that doesn't strike the same hopeful (or some might argue naive) tone as the chipper trailers and the sun-dappled opening number. Depending on your interpretation, the film's finale will leave you with a tear in your eye -- or make you shake your jazz-fusion-loving fist at the screen in sputtering rage.

For most moviegoers, the ending of La La Land is the first thing you'll talk about during your long, dance-filled walk to find your car in the multiplex parking lot. So with the musical expanding into more theaters this weekend, a road that should lead it straight to the Best Picture category in February, let's take a look at what exactly the arguments are on both sides.

Why do people love it so much?

On the surface, La La Land could not look more innocuous: Charming piano man Ryan Gosling wears a suit and dances with delightful coffee shop employee Emma Stone across old Hollywood backlots. But after pirouetting through a year's worth of seasons, the ending time jumps into the future to upend expectations. After nailing a big audition, striving artist Mia (Stone) earns the opportunity of a lifetime. Cut to five years later, when La La Land reveals her as a rich, successful actress. She's got a daughter now and her husband is played by Tom Everett Scott, who portrayed a fellow jazz-loving drummer in That Thing You Do! To viewers who worship Tom Hanks' '90s movie, you might say she traded up from Gosling's earnest pianist; seriously, Guy Patterson could jam and he was in The Wonders.

From there, we watch her head out for a night on the town with her hubby, getting stuck in one of those LA traffic jams that was so endearing at the beginning of the movie but now takes on a drab, dreary quality. They decide to walk into a jazz club, which happens to be owned by Gosling's Seb. Like Stone, he's achieved a version of his personal artistic dream, operating a seemingly successful club that specializes in the type of "pure jazz" he earnestly advocates for throughout the film. From a purely career-oriented perspective, this could scan as the beginning of a happy ending.

But upon hearing the opening notes of "Mia & Sebastian's Theme," Mia's mind takes flight. She imagines an alternate life for herself, one where she and Seb stayed together forever and forged a beautiful life filled with dancing and homages to French filmmaker Jacques Demy. Like similarly melancholy sequences in films like the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona or Spike Lee's 25th Hour, it's a bittersweet vision of the road not taken tinged with ambiguity. (Chazelle has explained that the ending was actually inspired by the 1927 silent film 7th Heaven.) It's a reminder that life is a series of choices, but it also suggests that two realities can intermingle.

For some viewers, this ambitious sequence is the movie's crowning achievement. Vulture deemed it "uncharacteristically subtle." Other critics have been even more rapturous. "The ending. Oh, the ending," wrote Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson back in September. "The film ends with an affectionate, wistful kiss goodbye, a sublime sequence that might guarantee the film's good fortune at the Oscars."

La La Land Ryan Gosling Emma Stone

Why do some people hate it?  

La La Land might leave you emotionally wrecked in a good way, sobbing on your friend's sleeve and reflecting on the ways love can define a life. But for others, the ending is yet another example of what the New Yorker's Richard Brody referred to in his brutal (though not unfair) review of the film as "artistic and cinematic crudeness." It inspires strong reactions. For example, when the movie ended my girlfriend turned to me and said, "Fuck that movie." It's divisive. Some find it wise; some find it cynical as hell. 

Your reaction to the final 15 minutes of the film likely depends on if you bought into everything that came before it. If you were psyched to see Gosling and Stone reignite their Crazy Stupid Love chemistry, you probably loved it. If you were turned off by the story early on, the finale can feel like an impeccably staged rendering of the film's larger thematic problems.

In a recent essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, writer Morgan Leigh Davies frames the finale as another example of Chazelle's tendency to privilege male ego over a woman's creativity. "While Mia spends multiple scenes throughout the film listening to Sebastian play, he never sees her act," Davies writes. "He doesn't even go to her play. But his final message to her sums up the entire film in a single beautiful sequence that the film has not earned."

Does La La Land "earn" its ending? For all its technical prowess, what does the film actually say about creativity and relationships? Is it a thoughtful and original message? Or just more Hollywood glitz dressed up as profundity? These are only some of question that will likely drive the debate surrounding the film for the next few months as moviegoers see the film, critics feud over its merits, and Oscar voters cast their ballots. Here's to the mess they make.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment and he has mixed feelings about La La Land. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.