La La Land (2016)
I understand that the year 2016 has been, charitably put, unkind to many people and why we all could use a little escapism around this time of year. Writer/director Damien Chazelle made a big Oscar splash with 2014’s Whiplash to make his passion project, a sincere musical that recreates the style of classic Hollywood. La La Land is a stylistic throwback that has enchanted critics and seems destined to compete for some of the biggest awards this season. Just imagine how much better it would be if it was great.
Chazelle and company certainly knows how to make an impression. The opening number transforms an L.A. traffic jam into a full-blown song-and-dance explosion, with commuters exiting their cars and coalescing into a teaming mass of jubilation on the freeway. It’s a moment that is sincere and full of energy and promise. The brightly colored commuters come together in long unbroken shots with a widescreen camera that dives and dips and leaves plenty of space for the audience to appreciate the dancing. This is a movie that wants you to see all of the rainbow-colored performers while they strut their stuff. It’s here that we’re introduced to Mia (Emma Stone), a part-time barista and struggling wannabe actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own club at a historic site. These two dreamers resist each other but of course destiny has another plan. A highlight is a flirty sequence set atop a Hollywood Hillside overlooking the purplish dawn. Mia and Sebastian sing how beautiful this scenic view would be if only they were with someone they loved, playfully antagonizing the other into a dancer’s rivalry. The dancing is mischievous and fun and performed in wide angles to soak in the movements. It’s easy to get caught up in Chazelle’s early swell, a transporting experience that extols the virtues of classical musicals by the likes of Vincent Minnelli, Gene Kelly, and especially Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Chazelle fills out his frame like a painter. There’s an infectious love for Old Hollywood that tries to alchemize its influences into something new and old, and for a good while Chazelle is able to maintain this fizzy, effervescent experience and remind you of the soothing joys of a good movie musical told with finesse and brio.
Then after about forty-five minutes the fizz gets a little staler and that’s when I felt the gnawing emptiness underneath all the Old Hollywood homage. It reminded me of 2011’s Best Picture winner, The Artist, as a movie that is more affectionate imitation than genuine substance. As I wrote in my review for The Artist: “The entire affair has such a slight feel to it; the movie is a confection, a sweet treat that melts away instantly after viewing. If you strip away all the old Hollywood nostalgia, there is very little substance here.” It’s all mimicry of the highest order but Chazelle hasn’t put enough authentic feeling into his imitation. There’s a fealty to the sources of his inspiration that Chazelle is replicating, and his screen pops with coded visual reminders (look, it’s Gosling leaning off a street lamp), but it fetishizes the inspirations rather than building from them. Quentin Tarantino is transparent about his outré influences but he doesn’t forget to tell an engaging story too. It’s in the movie’s dispiriting second half that it becomes all too clear just how little substance there is to our lovers as well as the industry satire. This is miles away from Singin’ in the Rain, folks (my favorite film musical, for the record) and more the same old broadsides about the industry: they’re shallow, they’re inconsiderate, they swallow up the dreamers, they “worship everything and value nothing,” as Sebastian put it. It’s not like the movie is telling you anything you haven’t heard before, and that’s fine but it limits any impact. It also seems to exist in a universe where minorities are mere background players to prop up the dazzling lives of the beautiful white leads. Imagine the enjoyment if some of that snappy industry satire was reserved for its less progressive casting practices. Can you imagine this kind of movie starring Tessa Thompson (Creed)?
Affection can only go so far because eventually the gravity of your characters, their relationship, their goals and dreams and relatability will need to kick in, and it doesn’t. I think this is because the first forty-five minutes are the typical rom-com story of the boy getting the girl. It’s the portion where the movie weaves its old Hollywood spell and courts us too, and it’s fun. And like bad relationships, once it has you La La Land feels like it has to do less work. Chazelle has to manufacture a series of pity problems (more below) to push his lovers apart and question whether these two star-crossed kids might make it after all. If the beginning half is the swirling romance that reverently celebrates old Hollywood, the second half is the attempt to “ground” the film in a sense of realism. It feels too late tonally to switch gears and it undercuts the first half. It might sound contradictory but if La La Land was just going to be a trifle then I wish it went all-in rather than half-heartedly trying an “edge” of harsh reality to mix the sour with the sweet. Just because the movie sets up the dreams of its characters, puts them together, and says not so fast doesn’t mean that Chazelle has properly set up this nascent melancholy.
Mia and Sebastian are not particularly strong characters. The unified star power of the lead actors is enough to disguise this fact for a majority of the movie and maybe for some the entirety. They don’t have anything of import to say beyond their dreams and their jobs that are presently in the way of achieving said dreams. I couldn’t tell you anything else about these characters. For Mia and Sebastian, the world is divided into those who are pure and those who are impure, the real artists and the phonies, and the dichotomy will rankle anyone who has interacted with more than their share of hipster. Sebastian is a music snob who wants to impress upon the world the importance of jazz even as it shrugs indifferently. Nobody gets it, man. He’ll fight the good fight no matter what because Sebastian’s fight is Chazelle’s: taking outdated material and exporting value to a new generation. The characters serve the plot and exist to entwine and then be dutifully pulled apart. It’s hard to invest in the characters when they won’t show who they are and why they should be together. Maybe that’s the point ultimately, a rich meta commentary on how attenuated the central courtships in movies themselves are, or the fleeting relationship between film and audience, or maybe I’m just hoofing as hard as the leads to insert more meaning here.
The second half paddles into what my friend Ben Bailey affectionately termed White People Problems: The Musical. I won’t fully concur but the conflicts are too forced and the characters become whiney. Sebastian rejoins a pop band where he doesn’t feel 100 percent creatively fulfilled because he isn’t performing “true jazz.” The band is also popular and this causes friction because he has “sold out” on his dream, as if toiling during for any period of time is giving up. I guess you must be single-minded or it doesn’t count. Their combined egos won’t allow for different variations of success. La La Land pretends to endorse the dreamers but does it really? The only dreamers who seem to count are Mia and Sebastian. What happened to Mia’s lively group of roommates and friends from the beginning party? What about the nebbish screenwriter the movie mocks for an easy laugh? There are no significant supporting characters in this movie; the universe belongs to Mia and Sebastian. They’re not as insufferable as the characters from Rent but it’s definitely a detriment. Look at the characters in Fame, a group of hungry teenagers who came from all walks of life and circumstances to try and achieve their titular dream of stardom.
The limitations of its doe-eyed leads present some issues. Stone (Birdman) is smashing in the movie but part of that is because, aside from some song-and-dance choreography, the movie asks very little of her other than to be cute, a trait Stone has in natural abundance. There are two standout scenes for the actress. The first is an audition where she pretends to be a mistress getting the “sorry, I can’t do this” phone call from the man she thought had loved her. The sheer variety of emotions that Stone is so able to quickly convey on her face, in her tremulous eyes, and posture are remarkable. Of course the problem is that she’s too objectively good to keep getting blithely rejected by cold-hearted casting agents. The second is a musical showcase where Stone belts out a story about how her aunt inspired her to be a thespian. Stone is effortlessly captivating but she deserves better than to be foil to a grumbly Gosling. I feel that Gosling is one of those actors who can be amazingly talented when plugged into the right role and with the right director (see: Half Nelson, The Believer, The Big Short). He has an easygoing charm that all-too easily morphs into smarm without the right guidance or motivation on his part. Sebastian feels like a scowling grump who wants to bludgeon the world with his point of view. It feels more like he’s in it for submission. Gosling’s performance left me wanting someone else to play his part. They were so strong on screen in Crazy, Stupid, Love but that sizzling chemistry of old is gone here. They feel inert together, amplified by Gosling’s antiseptic performance. They’re both rather limited singers, very thin of voice, and that does hurt a musical. The songs by composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are exceptionally milquetoast. They’re all slight renditions on the same blandly pleasant tune. They evaporated from my memory by the time the end credits started rolling. Moana has nothing to fear come Oscar time from these at-best competent compositions.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Chazelle’s anodyne musical is brimming with appreciation and adoration for the world of classic Hollywood, and that alone will be effectively transporting for many film critics and select audiences bred on a diet of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. La La Land is an airy confection but one that dissipates all too easily after viewing thanks to the limited characters, the limited singing, the limited dancing, the limited songs, and the lack of overall substance independent from imitation. It has its lovely moments and Stone is an ingénue worth loving, though not as much her slim character, a dreamer who dreams the dreams of a dreamer. The breezy and bubbly first half doesn’t really mesh with the second half. I think it’s telling that Mia and Sebastian’s “love theme” is a sad plaintive piano trinkle. As the characters get more sullen and sour, the fizzy fun fades away and it starts to feel like a New Year’s Eve hangover that left you addled and warm but only in a vaguely ephemeral sense. If it leaves you toe tapping and giddy, I’m glad. I’m already mentally prepared for it to practically sweep the Oscars, as they do love celebrating their own importance. La La Land is a movie musical that is stuck looking backward that it loses its own footing.
Nate’s Grade: B-