LA LA LAND (2016)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Summit Entertainment, 128 minutes, PG-13.
La La Land has gained loads of praise. Some have hailed it a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals. What this really tells us, though, is that current films are so desultory that anything with a heartbeat gets a rave. Sorry to disappoint. La La Land does indeed have its heart in the right place, but it's a total WTLD film (Wanted to Love. Didn't.)
I won't be a total curmudgeon—many parts of the La La Land are well done and lots of it is fun. Especially crisp is the opening dance sequence, which runs before the credits roll. It's MTV-meets-Glee in its flashy-on-the-border-of-trashy style, but it's also a shit-kicking prelude. There is also a very amazing Butterfly Effect montage toward the end. The choreography is wonderful, the sets are lush, the editing is top drawer, Justin Hurwitz's score is terrific, and the camera work is stellar. As classic song-and-dance films go, however, this one is decidedly second tier because of a weak script and unwise casting.
I mention the opening and closing sequences because they are miles better than the movie's body, which too often sags and drags. La La land is essentially Cinderella reimagined–the story of a cute but struggling actress, Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) who works in a big Hollywood studio–as a barista, not on the sets. She's treated like dirt by her supervisor, snooty customers, and distracted casting agents; call them wicked stepsister substitutes. Then she literally slams into a potential Prince Charming, brilliant jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling). Let's toss in a touch of Snow White, as there's a poisoned apple lurking: obsession-level ambition. Mia is at the now-or-never stage of her career and Sebastian is so principled about his music that he's a snob–a "huge pain in the ass," as his jazz buddy Keith (John Legend) puts it. Some might recognize director Damien Chazelle for his work on Whiplash, which was also about passion, ambition, and jazz. Alas, whereas Whiplash was a diamond, La La Land is cubic zirconia. First, we already got the idea from Whiplash that Chazelle is devoted to jazz, and making Sebastian his pigheaded (and lecture-prone) mouthpiece for "real" jazz pushes Chazelle toward Woody Allen-like annoyance levels on the subject. A subtheme of the film–uttered several times–is that "jazz is dying." Yes it is, but I doubt Chazelle's full-court propaganda press will change that. What it means in the movie is that jazz drives the script, not the central Sebastian/Mia relationship. Forget Los Angeles; it takes just a New York minute to realize that Sebastian is, at best, a flawed Prince Charming and it's not just music getting in the way. Much of La La Land has severe tonal problems. It's frothy rom-com musical at one moment, didactic the next, then it brings us down, seeks to perk us up, and brings us back down. Rinse and repeat.
But even had the script been tighter, there's no escaping the fact that La La Land is poorly cast. Stone and Gosling are physically appealing and look like the ideal musical couple but that's where the similarities end. Their dancing is passable–especially when they are thrust into big production numbers–but neither of them can be said to be more than adequate as singers (and in Gosling's case, that's a charitable remark). They're certainly not Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds–the Singin' in the Rain homage notwithstanding. Alas, there is very little chemistry between them at all, which means that scenes aiming to heighten emotional drama flutter rather than soar. Stone is mostly convincing as a vulnerable ingénue, but Gosling is becoming a bore on the screen. Have we seen him do anything other than play a brooding can't-commit ageing Millennial with a four-day stubble? It's not good news when neither of your leads can carry the film and it's worse when they are so wooden together that they suck the magic from the musical. John Legend is the only one who seems comfortable in his skin and that, of course, is because he is a musician.
To be clear, this film isn't a turkey. Fans of musicals will be entertained by nods to old musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Singin' in the Rain, and Broadway Melody of 1940. Movie buffs will find winks less obvious than the clips from Rebel without a Cause, and nostalgia nuts will revel over the very look of the film. Maybe the twelve people who think Los Angeles deserves a love letter will convince themselves it's as romantic as Paris. I suspect Oscar will hand out loads of nominations as well. Among the deserving: cinematographer Linus Sandgren, choreographer Mandy Moore, editor Tom Cross, and composer Justin Hurwitz. But if Oscar gets anywhere near Stone, Gosling, or Chazelle, shoot your television!
Go see La La Land for escapist fun, but remember that it's a WTLD movie, not a classic film.