La La Land was one of my most anticipated films of the year. From the moment that excellent first trailer arrived, I was hooked. First of all, I’m a huge sucker for musicals. And while I wasn’t a huge fan of director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, he seemed to be aiming towards evoking the nostalgia of the great Hollywood musicals of the past, with a modern spin which I was totally down with. I’ve also been a huge fan of Emma Stone’s since her brilliant star making performance in Easy A, and this seemed like the perfect project for her talents. And she had such great chemistry with Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid Love so what could go wrong, right?
Since then, La La Land has gone on to become the Best Picture frontrunner. It’s racked up wins from the New York Film Critic’s Circle, the coveted People’s Choice Award from TIFF, a bunch of Critic’s Choice wins and a bunch of Golden Globe and Screen Actor’s Guild nominations. It’s been written to death about how La La Land is the perfect antidote for our flaming garbage pile of a year, because after 2016, what we need is a breezy, delightful musical.
But La La Land simply doesn’t live up to the premise or hype bestowed upon it. And while it has some charming moments, they can’t hide the flawed and flimsy plot beneath all of the glitz and nostalgia.
Emma Stone plays Mia, a barista and aspiring actress who can’t seem to get her big break. Her auditions are either interrupted by interns delivering coffee or inopportune phone calls for the casting directors, but they always end the same: Mia walking out, frustrated and still without a gig. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a man who spends his time playing piano for a restaurant, but who is deeply in love with jazz. Sebastian is frustrated that jazz is dying, and despite the pleas from his sister Laura (Rosmarie Dewitt) and the ever growing pile of bills, he vows to try to save the genre by attempting to open his own club, instead of finding a stable, well paying job. When Mia and Sebastian meet, they are frustrated at their dreams being in a standstill. But despite their creative anguish, they fall in love.
As their relationship with one another deepens, both Mia and Sebastian make creative compromises. He decides to join a band headlined by a former schoolmate, Keith (John Legend) playing music he doesn’t necessarily enjoy. But it pays! She decides to quit her barista job and throw herself into writing and staging a one woman play, in hopes of finally jump-starting her acting career. Their artistic endeavors threaten to compromise their relationship with one another, however, and the two are left at yet another crossroads.
From the opening moments of La La Land, it’s entirely clear what Chazelle’s intentions are. The “broadcasted in Cinemascope” tag prior to the film starting and many of the shots and sequences in the film are pulled from or attempt to recreate the Hollywood musicals of the past. The film’s opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” takes place in gridlock traffic on the highway, where random citizens get out of their cars and break out into song in a way only people in a classic musical was. It’s cute, but it also feels completely detached from the rest of the film, and even worse showcases the film’s awful sound design. There’s also a lot of attention paid to saturation and colors, which also seems like a bit of a throwback.
The other musical numbers don’t really fare much better, despite some dazzling cinematography from Linus Sandgren, which really stems from the fact that:
A.) None of the songs are particularly memorable.
And B.) Gosling and Stone are not singers.
Now, that last one might be a read as a bit nitpicky, but it’s something that is a glaring weakness, especially during the film’s “big moment,” in Mia’s much talked about Audition scene, which I found to be extremely flat (but more on that later). The only time it really seemed to work and feel like what the film was aiming for, was the scene where Mia and Sebastian tap dance together (“A Lovely Night”) and that had more to do with the way the scene was shot more than it had to do with the singing and dancing.
It’s clear that Stone and Gosling have chemistry with one another, and while it doesn’t reach the levels of Crazy, Stupid Love it’s certainly better than the pair’s last outing, Gangster Squad. Still, there’s something extremely hollow about Gosling’s performance here. Perhaps it’s because his character is uninteresting and unlikeable, and there’s a lot that’s already been said about him being a white savior for the jazz genre (which you should read about here) which absolutely doesn’t feel right.I give him props for learning piano and dancing, but for the most part it feels as if he’s sort of sleepwalking through most of the film.
Stone emerges from the film looking much better, and it’s been talked to death about how she is poised to win an Oscar, though I don’t understand really understand why. Sure she’s lovely, especially in an early scene where Mia is auditioning for a part that requires her to have a conversation on the phone. There’s so much she’s doing with her eyes, as she feigns happiness and struggles to hold back heartbreak all at the same time. It’s not clear what she’s auditioning for, but she tells us everything we need to know. Unfortunately, her performance doesn’t go anywhere beyond that brilliant moment; Mia’s audition scene, positioned as her “Oscar clip” requires her to tell the casting directors a story. She goes with a story about her aunt, and while the camera worships her throughout, Stone’s limitations as a singer really hamper what could have been a big and emotional moment. In the year of Natalie Portman in Jackie, Ruth Negga in Loving and Isabelle Huppert in Elle, I need Emma Stone to do more than simply play herself.
But perhaps the most glaring flaw of La La Land is its thin plot. Though we’re to believe Mia and Sebastian are fighting for their careers and creative livelihoods, the stakes never really feel as high as they’re being made out to be. Watching the two of them fall in love is mesmerizing, but the film’s tank runs out of gas when there’s still more than an hour left to go. Chazelle brings back some of the early magic for a heartbreaking and visually stunning finale, but none of the glitz can cover up that underneath the surface, La La Land isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Oscar Chances: We’re probably looking at our Best Picture winner here, but I’m not counting out Moonlight or even Manchester By The Sea just yet (both got SAG Ensemble nominations where La La Land missed out). Gosling will ride the film’s acclaim to a Best Actor nomination, whereas Stone will duke it out with Portman. Both are split up at the Globes, so look out for SAG to make this race a bit clearer. You can also count on nominations in Director, Score, Original Song, Screenplay and the techs as well. The question at this point really is, how many Oscars can La La Land win?