Damien Chazelle’s misunderstood Hollywood epic is a sprawling story of an industry in transition, documenting the rise and fall of an ensemble of artists at a moment when nobody knew what the future would hold. Equal parts tragic and hilarious, the film finds Chazelle applying his distinct visual style to the largest canvas of his career, and the end result is a rich tapestry of stories about the finite nature of Hollywood success despite the industry’s remarkable staying power. Yet initial discourse around the film seemed to reduce the meticulously-researched project to one word: excess. The film quickly became synonymous with its sex-and-drug-fueled bacchanals, and fans and critics alike seemed to ignore the narrative heft in favor of discussing the pros and cons of Chazelle’s maximalism.
While the film will almost certainly be reevaluated in a more positive light as time passes (especially if Chazelle continues to establish himself as a filmmaker with a legacy worth studying), it faced a perfect storm of external factors that led to a dismal box office performance. Initial reviews were largely mediocre, and it didn’t play at any fall festivals that could have given it the opportunity to build buzz. It also boasted a three hour run time and highly adult subject matter that made it impossible for families to see together despite a Christmas release date. Factor in a nationwide snow storm that kept people inside and competition from “Avatar: The Way of Water,” and its disappointing $30 million gross (against a reported $80 million budget) becomes more understandable.