Sundance 2017: L.A. Times, by David Bax
Michelle Morgan’s L.A. Times is an attempt to update the ‘hyper-verbose, aimless young people’ blueprint of 90s fare like Reality Bites to the current day. From the opening scene, in which jaded but overly confident lifestylers at a bourgeois cocktail bar casually assert their opinions on the ethics of patronizing prostitutes, the hollow echoes of those Generation X forebears make themselves known. The roundabout speechifying and armchair psychology continues from that point on and never lets up. The characters in Reality Bites may have been full of shit but at least they pretended to stand for something. The people in L.A. Times can’t see anything beyond the ends of their noses, too vapid to understand the traditional cultural values into which they keep reflexively retreating. Unfortunately, the same can be said of the movie itself.
More a series of interwoven short stories than a single narrative, L.A. Times follows three thirtysomethings–Annette (Morgan), her long term boyfriend Elliot (Jorma Taccone) and her best friend Baker (Dree Hemingway)–as they navigate relationships in their gentrified bubble. Basically, it’s a feature length version of those YouTube series that struggling actors self-finance to increase their exposure.
With a title like L.A. Times, the city itself ought to be an integral part of the tapestry. The sad thing is, Morgan (who also wrote the movie) seems to think it is. Last Fall, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land caught a lot of flak for what many saw as a superficial vision of Los Angeles but L.A. Times makes Chazelle’s film look like Los Angeles Plays Itself in comparison. When it’s not falling back on worn out cliches like the notion that everyone in Los Angeles has a screenplay to push, it’s giving us characters who live in the hills or the pre-boutiqued East side and talk confidently about the city despite having the familiarity of people who have lived there for three years at the maximum. For the record, I’ve lived in Los Angeles for a dozen years and am still discovering it; it’s a big and deeply varied place. But with the exception of a running joke in which the name of every restaurant mentioned is two words divided by an ampersand, there’s nothing here that could pass for incisive.
Morgan’s aesthetic approach boils down to the widescreen symmetry of far too many post-Wes Anderson American indies. She does occasionally make choices that catch the eye, like keeping the horizontal image symmetrical while the vertical is imbalanced, giving her characters either not enough or way too much headroom in the frame. It’s drastic enough to be obviously intentional but the motivation for it is far from clear.
The foundation of all these uninspired and familiar elements is the most well-trod territory of all, the unquestioned insistence that being a part of a couple is the default setting for human beings and being single is a defect that only worsens the longer it lasts. If you’re going to try to update the urban relationship comedy, shouldn’t the accompanying mores be updated as well?