If La La Land were a person, it would be an eager-to-please, bright sunny person with very little going on behind the eyes. There’s loving nods and references to your idols and objects of obsession, and then there’s pure pastiche stitched together from the better parts of several famous movie musicals but without their emotional context. La La Land is a prime example of a charming time waster, an adequate movie musical that lacks any sense of depth that keeps something like Singin’ in the Rain vibrantly alive.
La La Land steals proudly from Jacques Demy’s musical output, but all of this referencing is missing the melancholy and depth of feeling in its characters. Writer-director Damien Chazelle sure does know how to signify exuberance, but he can’t seem to make us care about any of it. It’s wonderfully sweet, happy, and cute in the moment, but it fades nearly instantly from your memory.
If I sound contrarian to this movie, know that I enjoyed La La Land in the moment, but find its near full frontal assault on awards season slightly baffling. I suppose given the dark temper of 2016 something this light feels like a blissful oasis. There’s several positives to this film, but the strength of other films like Moonlight or Kubo and the Two Strings is how they linger in the mind and heart. La La Land is a sugar rush that’s immediately pleasing before fading from the mind.
At least there’s a few moments of heightened movie-making that are clearly trying for something greater. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling bring their chemistry once more, and their fun repartee as actors does a lot of the heavy lifting for the material. Not that there’s much to lift here. Stone plays an actress who dreams of hitting it big, Gosling plays another of Chazelle’s white jazz savior proxies, and their characters are fun to watch romance and spar together. But this is the extent of what La La Land asks of them.
Stone can carry a tune, and is a pleasing dancer, while Gosling is a gifted actor who should probably lead with his other talents, because musical star is not one of them. Think of how good he is in Lars & the Real Girl, Crazy Stupid Love, or Half Nelson, then watch how adequate he is here. Any number of fellow actors in Gosling’s generation could have given this performance; it lacks his trademark wit and self-effacing charm. His warbling lacks soul, while Stone mugs up a few of her musical moments like a theater kid making good. God, do they try valiantly to bring their characters some soul, but there’s no major arch for them to play, no memorable song for them to belt.
La La Land comes roaring out the gate with an impassioned free-for-all dance number on a Los Angeles freeway, and nothing will top this sequence. The solid colors, almost eye bleeding vibrant and bright, and acrobatic choreography are an adrenaline shot that perk you up immediately. Then the vague sense of fealty creeps in and we’re left with a nagging sense that everything is a flimsy bubble ready to pop at a moment’s notice. Strange considering the depth of feeling Chazelle brought to Whiplash, which had actual thoughts in its brain and characters for its actors to play.
I think it’s because nothing happens in this movie that you can’t see coming from three scenes before. The romance follows the projection of A Star is Born without the tragedy and romance. There’s an extended dream sequence in the end that steals outright from the “Broadway Melody” in Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris’ impressionistic ballet, and a scene where a date starts off with a repertory screening of Rebel Without a Cause and ends with a late night trip to the Griffith Observatory. La La Land is obsessed with proving its bonafides as a prodigal child of movie musicals but forgets to invest some heart, soul, or real feeling while it’s at it. I enjoyed it in the moment, but the second the credits rolled all I could muster as I turned to my friend was an noncommittal, “It was cute.” Naturally, this will probably dominate the Oscars.