From the incredibly showy opener and opening titles that boldly declare "SHOT IN CINEMASCOPE," it’s almost immediately clear that something feels just slightly off in Damian Chazelle’s sophomore follow-up to the angst-ridden Whiplash. These commuters in downtown L.A. jumping on their parked cars certainly act like they’re in a classic Hollywood musical and the camera certainly follow them as if they’re in one, and yet this number does nothing to charm or entice you into feeling the waves of nostalgia it’s meant to evoke.
This forgettable tune is followed by another, this time sung by star Emma Stone and her girlish cohorts all bathed in technicolor light and garbed in flashy colors meant to evoke memories of superior films such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or An American in Paris but again failing to spark any sort of charm or delight those films are renowned for. Chazelle keeps the camera rolling and spinning to wow the film geeks, but it ultimately feels so performative in a way that’s aping classics rather than evoking them.
And yet by some small miracle, the film begins to click when jazz pianist Sebastian (played by ultra-charmer Ryan Gosling) begins his half of the tale. A scene where Gosliing’s free-jazz roots and sensibilities clash with his employer’s (played by Whiplash villain J.K. Simmons) desire to keep it simple, stupid is one of the movie’s rare moments of real charm and musical fun.
Subsequently when Gosling and Stone meet at an '80s themed party a few scenes later, it feels as if the two stars’ potent chemistry and charm is going to be enough to carry La La Land through the bland songwriting and uninvolving story. Their tap-dance routine against a scenic Hollywood skyline is probably the closest the film can get to actually nearing the grace of a Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire film’s essence.
But this grace quickly becomes short-lived as it becomes imminently clear that the stars’ chemistry simply can’t prop up this two hour-plus exercise in nostalgia-baiting. The romance blossoms pretty quickly, so instead of a familiar boy meets girl tale, the story starts to revolve around two people so hopelessly annoying in their desire to perform their art like in the “good ol' days” that you begin to beg for these characters to break up simply so the film might actually become about something interesting again.
Sebastian’s desire to build a jazz club with real integrity, which initially felt like an innocent jab at how self-serious jazz purists can be, is actually in fact treated as the ultimate stake for this character’s arc. When Sebastian decides to get an actual steady-paying job any musician would kill for, the film treats this as a tacky betrayal of his “pure” art form and inexplicably wants to punish Gosling’s character for daring to step outside his freeform-jazz sensibilities. (And on that note, are we seriously supposed to hate John Legend’s music in this film? He’s meant to be the tacky antithesis to pure jazz but they actually give his band some of the more enjoyable music here.)
Ultimately every bit of aesthetic La La Land appropriates from infinitely superior and more sincere films simply serves as glorified window-dressing to a boring, cold and ultimately joyless reworking of Hollywood tropes without any kind of story to hang them upon. It practically begs the viewer to take it so seriously that it becomes near laughable “Look at these posters from old movies! The long takes! Hey remember CINEMASCOPE?! They shot Rebel Without a Cause in CinemaScope and we even have that in our movie! *wink wink* Are you not entertained??” the movie practically screams at you. The musical setpieces are neither frequent enough nor impressive enough to justify such a bloated runtime and despite its glorious ending and one (count it: ONE) impressive song, this facade is ultimately about as sturdy as a Hollywood backlot: push on it a bit and it topples spectacularly.
I won’t be surprised at all to see La La Land taking its victory lap around awards shows this season, because there’s nothing Hollywood loves more in an awards darling than a bout of self-congratulatory backpatting about its own legacy (see: The Artist), but you can certainly expect it to be forgotten about this time next year.