I walked in fifteen seconds late to La La Land, but I think I must have missed the good part. Surely there was something about this movie that captivated critics and awards-givers the world over, but I didn’t see it. I was warned, of course, by friends on social media, but I blamed their cynicism on a lack of romanticism or an apples-to-oranges comparison to Moonlight.
But I was as wrong to doubt the hate of La La Land as I was wrong to doubt the love of Hamilton. Forgive me. I was seduced, you see, by a trailer that promised a swooning and bouyant love story, a polished ode to the great musicals of the 50s and 60s. And the film did scrape together enough compelling, color-saturated shots to make for a captivating two minute advertisement. But as a whole, La La Land seems to have misunderstood everything appealing in its own concept.
And the concept itself is good! Even reading a review of the first scene, in which hopeful denizens of Los Angeles spring from their cars during a traffic jam to sing about their lives and flash their pearly whites at the camera like old-fahsioned showgirls, I was hooked on the notion. But the execution is sloppy and fails to commit to either being an out-and-out homage to MGM or a naturalistic twist on the old conceits. The costumes are fervently retro, but Emma Stone drives a Prius. The shots are high gloss eye candy, except when what I can only describe as the three headed Sephora monster of Emma Stone’s roommates sachay down a dirty, floodlit street. Even the singing and dancing Los Angelenos in the huge crowd number can’t really sing OR dance. They just smilingly mumble-hum and wave their arms like the first batch of rejects from A Chorus Line. The film, bafflingly, doesn’t seem to understand that what is appealing about old musicals isn’t that everyone wears matching outfits, but that everyone has talent.
Of course, next we have to talk about Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the only two people in the movie. I mean, John Legend pops in for five seconds to play some dreadful jazz fusion and Rosemarie Dewitt indicates that she should somehow be important to the narrative, but there are no real supporting characters. That puts a lot of pressure on Stone and Gosling, and both of them are more than equal to it when only called on to be charming actors, but they fall completely to pieces during the musical numbers. The two know one move: the twirl (though they do it enough to make even the audience dizzy). Gosling is rarely called to sing, and when he does, it’s a sulky Chet Baker impersonation but without the pathos. And Emma Stone, god bless her, is such an engaging actress–never more so than in the scenes when she is playing an actress auditioning for her life–that her vocal performances are merely bad, when from anyone less charismatic they would have been humiliating. And the music itself, possibly covering for the leads’ lack of range and belting ability, is exactly the kind of anyodyne elevator jazz the film’s dialogue constantly complains about, never building up any kind of vocal climax.
Much has been made of the fact that Gosling’s character, a white man, has made it his particular mission to rescue jazz, but not enough has been made of the fact that Emma Stone’s character tries to launch her career with a ONE-WOMAN PLAY. And the fact that, in the context of the movie, it works, is perhaps the film’s most damaging message. So let me just say, to any aspiring actors who might be reading: A ONE-WOMAN PLAY IS THE KIND OF SELF-CONGRATULATORY VANITY PROJECT PEOPLE TOLERATE AT THE END OF A LONG AND STORIED CAREER, NOT HOW ONE BEGINS.
I mean, what even happens in La La Land? Two characters meet, share a few lines of dialogue, have one fight, and break up. There’s no sparkling banter (the film’s one attempt at it, centered around Gosling’s 80s cover band, is one of the more painful moments). There’s no lesson to be learned, other than the fact that people usually break up when one of them moves to Paris.
One of the chief complaints I read about La La Land is that it is so “white,” which struck me as unfair until I saw it myself. Describing the film as white is not so much an indictment of the two main characters’ race, but the fact that they go through a realitvely minor heartbreak, both get everything they want, and we are still expected to believe we have witnessed something profound. People struggle to make their dreams come true, struggle to make love work, but this film fails deliver those struggles with any more conviction than the half-assed soft shoe it counts as choreography.
At the end of the day, La La Land‘s title says it all. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of escapism, but there’s no real place to escape to in a city made of dreams.