starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Finn Wittrock, J.K. Simmons
written and directed by Damien Chazelle
by Walter Chaw Damien Chazelle's La La Land is sort of like Down with Love and also sort of like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, derivative in the way that things are derivative when they have no real knowledge of or even maybe affection for the things from which they ostensibly derive. At the least, the picture demonstrates no real knowledge of the Hollywood musical. It's homage in the same way that "Stranger Things" is homage. It's beard oil, suspenders, and craft beer: The Movie. It's homage the way that putting a tutu on a dog pays homage to ballet. When something is this familiar, its set-pieces need to be extraordinary. Howard Hawks understood this. Vincente Minnelli, of course. Stanley Donen? Stop yourself. Yes. When Chazelle does the two or three blow-out sequences meant to dazzle, all they do is seem psychotic. The best thing about his Whiplash is arguably its editing. (It won the Oscar.) Now imagine Brigadoon cut like that. Consider the scene in La La Land that ends in a swimming pool, camera spinning deliriously around in a circle like something drowning or getting death-rolled by an alligator. It's intended to be ebullient; it feels panicky and hallucinogenic. It feels like that scene in Seconds where Rock Hudson joins a bacchanal in a grape-stomping vat. Seconds wasn't a good musical, either.
Start with the casting of Ryan Gosling as romantic lead Sebastian. He's a jazz pianist wanting to teach the world about his genre of choice. It's pure, man, pure. He gets a few soulful, Byronic monologues about how no one likes jazz because no one understands jazz--not like he understands jazz. See, it all started in little clubs in Louisiana... And then he trails off before he gets to the race stuff. Jazz is so pure a white guy can play it in a band with all-black musicians in clubs packed with black patrons. So pure that all of his name-dropped heroes are black. ("I gots to call my club 'Chicken on a Stick' because of Charlie Parker! Charlie Parker loved chicken! That's why they called him 'Bird'! Don't you get it? You don't get it. You could never get it.") What I'm saying is the level of blithe cultural appropriation in this thing is presented entirely without irony or commentary. (It's the only thing about the picture that's genuinely retrograde. Nice work, everybody.) Gosling is a taciturn, solipsistic presence. That's his thing. He's like James Dean, meaning he can be very good in the right role. Nicolas Winding Refn has decoded Gosling, finding the wounded masculinity at the heart of the mopey dickbag. The only blessing of Dean not living very long is that he never had a Paint Your Wagon. In La La Land, Sebastian is a smirk with a haircut. Gosling spends the movie acting like he's doing someone a favour when he croons and does a little softshoe. He's brilliant in The Nice Guys because his "puerile asshole" bit gets turned against him. It's less palatable when the bit is his romantic selling point.
Sebastian adorably meets-cute adorably struggling actor Mia (Emma Stone, really good at English for being Chinese, amiright?) in an L.A. traffic jam, establishing "their song" as a long peel on Sebastian's car horn. He does this throughout the film. It's supposed to be sweet, I think. What it is is jarring and annoying. Perfect. The actual love theme is so non-descript that every time Sebastian plays something slow and sad, you need to infer that it's the love theme and meant to express something poignant even though it's stopping the movie cold. Mia stages a one-woman show, goes on a ton of auditions in a montage, and then there's the Umbrellas of Cherbourg choice the couple needs to make. For depth, Sebastian has jazz and Mia has a dead aunt who jumped in a river in Paris once, leading to her Cabaret moment where she sings her heart out for stardom. And her mom is a librarian. Spoiler alert: Though they hate each other at first, Sebastian and Mia fall in love. They base their relationship on Rebel Without a Cause, by the way, which is only stupid for anyone who's seen Rebel Without a Cause. I do like this plot point because it suggests the filmmakers understood that Gosling has some of the same qualities as James Dean and went ahead and made him the lead in a musical anyway. What would La La Land have been like had it starred Alden Ehrenreich instead? If you said "better," you would be correct.
Chazelle opens with the old CinemaScope logo in the same way that Tarantino opens his films with vintage logos and teasers. The difference is that Tarantino understands the movies he's pulling from and Chazelle doesn't. Homage isn't just playing the notes, or oversaturating the colours. There are two adaptations of Charles Portis's True Grit. One of them actually hears the music. La La Land is tone deaf. It has no catchy tunes, no extraordinary numbers (although there are a couple of big ones); it's directed by the wrong person and written by the wrong person, who happen to be the same guy. Oh, and there's a Baz Luhrmann scene with dancing among the stars. Swoon. The "No Dames" number in Hail Caesar! is the most devastating critique of La La Land possible, doing in five minutes what this film fails to do for what seems like hours. It relies on Stone being cute and Gosling being smug (a reminder that The Notebook was also a bad musical); you root for them as actors but could give a shit about their characters. There's a moment where Sebastian puts his hand experimentally on a light pole and the picture tenses in anticipation of his Gene Kelly moment. Then he takes his hands away and puts them in his pockets. La La Land is Step Up 6: Awards Season, and there's not an authentic bone in its three-strip-Technicolor-esque body.