I wanted to enjoy La La Land. I really did. I was, in fact, fawning over the idea of a big Hollywood musical directed by Damien Chazelle, whose 2014 film Whiplash remains one of my favorite features of the last five years. But unfortunately, despite the rave reviews and Oscar buzz, La La Land is a mess. Worse, it is 2016’s The Artist — an uneven film propelled to acclaim due to its veneer of greatness and allusions to old Hollywood.
However, this is not to say I didn’t enjoy moments or aspects of La La Land. I think anything that tries this hard to win you over is going to work occasionally, and I’ll be damned if Chazelle didn’t put a lot of effort into this movie. But at the end of the day, fancy shots, well-orchestrated choreography, and catchy songs mean nothing when devoid of purpose and meaning. As media consumers, we usually have gut reactions to well done manipulations: Oh, that was fun. Oh, that was pretty. Oh, that was a good shot. This can help hide a movie’s flaws on the first viewing. Like how I, and no one else, complained that The Force Awakens had another Death Star after leaving the midnight screening…
I don’t consider it a contradiction to say I enjoyed the movie (or The Force Awakens). I’m merely acknowledging that Chazelle used his cinematic tools effectively, and I acted in kind. In La La Land‘s big sweeping moments of song and dance and primary colors, of course I found myself smiling! Much like the two main characters, I was caught up in the sweep of things. And, for the first act, I was willing to look past any flaws. But once the film gets done introducing its two lead characters, things fall apart.
For starters: Who are these two lovebirds? What are these characters really like, as people? Why are they drawn to each other? Unfortunately, Chazelle never really delves into what drives them. Emma Stone plays a white, twenty-something, barista-by-day, struggling-actress who is… frustrated by her lack of success. And Ryan Gosling plays a white, thirty-something, jazz purist frustrated by the lack of jazz appreciation in modern day society… who is also frustrated by their lack of success. Okay: And?
Ryan Gosling has always been able to channel his hangdog countenance and limitless charm into any role — and make no mistake, he has done that here — but without that, would this character have any appeal at all? He’s just kinda grumpy and up his own ass about jazz. Emma Stone’s character, meanwhile, never even shows shades of complexion. Like Gosling, she is a charming performer, but the character she’s embodying is lifeless. I can’t even remember their damn names. It’s easier to just think this movie featured characters named Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
What really damns the movie, however, is how these two hollow characters seem to be traversing an ambitiously laid out plot that never actually consider how its main players would react to it. You can imagine Chazelle laying out the final scene on paper, imagining its beauty, but failing to see how little sense it makes.
Some explaining: So Gosling, to commit or something to Emma Stone, sells-out and joins a band with John Legend that combines elements of jazz with other genres (because if you’re a fan of innovators, playing anything but their standards is selling out). He seems to achieve quite a bit of fame and money… BUT: Now he has to tour all the time! This is a problem because now he can’t dedicate all his time to Emma Stone… WHO is working on a one woman show she decided to put on at the encouragement of Gosling. On the show’s opening night, Gosling has to do a photoshoot for this band he doesn’t really seem to care about and so he misses her performance. Cue contrived twenty minutes of break-up. Cue him winning her back. Cue scene where powerful agent was actually at her show and now she has a movie offer.
Yay. Everyone wins. But presumably because she must now be a famous actress, their relationship is unsustainable. Okay. Five years later, they are broken up, Emma Stone is uber-famous and Ryan Gosling runs the jazz club he had always wanted to. But they still think about each other… and what could have been.
Yeah, spoiler alert, but if you read that you’ll notice that nothing is really influenced by character reactions; it is merely a synopsis about two characters who happen to drift through the circumstances of their plot. And this doesn’t even begin to mention how out of fucking nowhere Ryan Gosling’s sudden fame was in the film.
La La Land was the movie Chazelle tried to fund for years before he made Whiplash. Perhaps he should have moved on instead of stepping backward, because in every narrative sense this movie feels like a creative step behind Whiplash. Where Whiplash was taut and cohesive, this movie is loose and nonsensical. Where everything was driven by a singular motivation in Whiplash, in La La Land motivation serves as character-detail but not a plot-generator. I could go on…
It’s sad, because the movie seems self-aware enough to be aware of these problems. Gosling himself says of Hollywood in the flick that it “worships everything, values nothing.” It’s weird, I feel I could say the same about the film itself.
Oh well. Time to watch it sweep!
La La Land
dir. Damien Chazelle
Now playing at Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, and elsewhere