Movie Review: La La Land.
La La Land is an ode to 1950’s musicals and quite charming, though ultimately hollow.
This film has been knocking critics dead since its release and recently took several high honors at the Golden Globes. I have to agree that director Damien Chezelle (Whiplash) has crafted a solid feature that channels the aesthetic of Hollywood’s golden age, though I would stop well short of calling La La Land a masterpiece. While the film energetically leaps and twirls, it rarely soars, and the story of two talented and privileged sex symbols “struggling” to join the Hollywood elite is not exactly a fanfare for the common person.
La La Land (2016)
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who has yet to land a break-out role after six years in Hollywood. She works in a coffee shop on a studio lot, serving lattes to the famous patrons she wishes to join, and by night she joins her three room mates at extravagant parties hosted by other hopefuls, all trying to be noticed by the right movie insider. After losing her car one night, she finds herself drawn to a supper club where a dissatisfied pianist named Seb (Ryan Gosling) is trying to slip his love of jazz in between the kitschy holiday music his boss (J.K. Simmons) forces him to play.
Mia contrives to meet Seb at a variety of functions afterward, and the two become a couple. They bond over their apparently hopeless dreams, Mia to become a famous actress and Seb to start a proper Jazz night club. When an old friend gives Seb the opportunity to make a ton of money by playing pop music, the couple fight over artistic integrity and their story book romance begins to crumble.
The Golden Days
From the first scene we see that Chezelle is dedicated to recreating the glitzy glamor of Hollywood musicals from the golden age, suffused with modern touches. A traffic jam erupts into a song and dance with vibrant colors and music. Chezelle opts to film in long single takes using wide-screen CinemaScope, just like the classics he is emulating. The next sequence involves a frenetic party around an outdoor pool, climaxing in men in tuxedos diving into the water, fountains spraying into the heavens to mingle with a sudden burst of fireworks. It resembles the lavish studio set pieces that became so synonymous with Hollywood excess that Mel Brooks was able to mock them relentlessly in Blazing Saddles.
The musical numbers of La La Land are charming and thrilling, and they wear their inspiration proudly upon their brightly colored sleeves. Chezelle manages to recreate the feel of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ piece in places. Unfortunately, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not up to the level of those performers.
Our leads have proven that they are supremely capable actors. Birdman showed off Emma Stone’s chops, and The Nice Guys was a watershed picture that showed me that Gosling was more than a pretty face. When they are acting in this film, they are engaging and believable. When they are thrown into musical numbers, the film struggles to accommodate them while maintaining the vibrancy of its elements.
The first two numbers have virtually no involvement from our stars. The short sequence with Stone in the second number sees her actually bump into her roommates while dancing, giving us the visual cue that she’s not on the same level as the others, who are quite natural singing and dancing. When Seb and Mia finally have the stage to themselves, they dance a modest little duet that plays up the angle that these two are not singers and dancers. It’s a cute little number, with them taking a few stumbles and losing their rhythm to laugh at each others’ overtures, but it is a jarring departure from the elegantly choreographed and skillfully performed scenes that proceed it.
This is where I found a disjuncture in La La Land. In a classical musical, the music isn’t acknowledged by the actors. They break into song and dance, but they’re not performing a number in their mind. The music is just a facet of the world of the movie. People just suddenly sing and dance instead of talk. In this film, you can’t sink into that reality because Stone and Gosling aren’t strong enough at those suits. The film has to cheat and hedge to make their parts sync up. It may be attempting a metaphor for how their characters are outsiders and therefore not as versed in the mode of Hollywood as everyone twirling around them, but it just becomes obvious that they don’t really work as stars in a musical.
First World Problems
If the musical aspect is just an affect to help tell their stories, how are those stories?
Pretty banal, actually. They both pay lip service to “struggling” as artists, but it is never believable. They live in nicer pads than they have any right to (especially given LA’s market!) and never seem to have any pinch on their personal lives. A few toss away lines about bills and hating their day jobs is all we get to placate us as they constantly go to parties, restaurants, clubs and movies. Anybody struggling with an actual job is going to have precious little sympathy that these two dreamers are living an incredible life while also chasing their feckless dreams.
Here is another aspect where the casting hurts the movie. If they wanted to have inspiring stories of rags to riches (despite both having every advantage when it comes to talent and upbringing) it makes little sense to cast such A list celebrities. If they weren’t cast because of musical talent, they sure don’t make sense as everyday people trying to break into show biz. It actually undercuts the message.
These two actors got these roles, not for their talent in the genre, but because they are hot commodities in Hollywood. Suck it struggling actors and musicians, this film tells you straight up that your role is going to somebody who can’t dance as a dancer because Hollywood is a closed loop of who gets to be in movies.
A Charming Little Nothing
La La Land is not a bad movie. Throughout the film I found myself smiling at the inoffensive charm of the piece. The director makes some bold decisions and daring moves to recreate the feel of a classic musical. The final sequence is a bit jarring and out of place, but it shows that Chezelle had a definite vision and was willing to take risks to put it down in his movie. At the end of the day, there just isn’t more to La La Land.
Bright flourishes and nods to an idealized past all end up in service to a familiar story about the allure of Hollywood. The film rests on the power of its stars to charm you past some of the disjointed elements, but the choice of casting ends up being another mismatched element. For fans of Hollywood’s glory days, this may be a fun throwback, but it doesn’t rise to the level of heady praise being lavished on the picture.