Last night on Dancing with the Stars, journeyman baseball player David Ross beat the most decorated American gymnast in history, Simon Biles, by scoring 34/40 and 36/40 in two dances. Ross had the lowest scores of the night; Biles had two perfect scores. But America had spoken, and they preferred Ross’s “aw, shucks” tenacity to Biles’ “smiling doesn’t win gold medals” bluntness, even if Biles danced rings around Ross the entire season.
In the Keanu Reeves movie Hardball (you never saw it and neither did I, but the trailer was inescapable in 2001; think Bad New Bears meets Dangerous Minds), Reeves tells his rag tag inner-city little leaguers that, “One of the most important things in life is showing up. I’m blown away by your ability to show up.” That’s true – you can’t succeed in life without a consistent work ethic. It’s also a mind-numbingly low bar, particularly given the children he’s speaking to.
Then there’s La La Land, in which two utterly charming, like-able, charismatic actors (and that’s not three ways of saying the same thing, there are subtle variations in connotation that I think are important to use together so I can convey just how much I should love a Gosling-Stone joint) do their level best to sing and dance. I majored in Musical Theater at Syracuse University when its program was ranked third in the country. I flunked out because they had standards, but I can recognize the difference between excellence and mediocrity when it comes to performance. The song-and-dance sequences come off as an admirable stretch for Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, but they were not transportive. When someone breaks into song, I want goosebumps. I want a lump in my throat. I want my heart to fill up. When someone dances, I want to gasp. I want my heart to swell and soar. I want to wonder how the hell they managed to make their bodies do that. When someone performs, I want to be moved.
Yet somehow, La La Land is beloved. Not just liked, but adored. Best Picture nomination adored.
We have gotten to the point that we celebrate the swing. Hail, Ceasar! sucked hard, but it made several Best Of… lists last year because it’s beautiful and well-acted and has one great scene* and one great dance scene, but just because it’s worlds better than box office hits like Batman vs Superman, Suicide Squad, or Jason Bourne doesn’t make it a good movie. The Cohen Brothers swung hard and missed. The swing was lovely and the form was damned fine, but the shot missed.
Does this matter, in the brink-of-nuclear-war, I’m-going-to-lose-my-healthcare sense of “matter?” Maybe not. Or maybe settling for mediocrity is why we are in this shit. Subpar educations, subpar politicians, subpar expectations, the celebration of meh. Rewarding good enough because we don’t expect greatness.
Fuck that noise; smiling doesn’t win gold medals.