LA LA LAND * *
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt and J.K. Simmons. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle.
“Mandatory fun” were the first words I scribbled in my notebook after sitting through Damien Chazelle’s oppressively whimsical throwback. This year’s The Artist, La La Land is another hollow exercise striving to be a simulacrum of a thing while pretty much missing the whole point of what it’s trying to replicate. Yet much like Michel Hazanavicius’ instantly forgotten 2011 Oscar darling, 2016’s presumptive Best Picture winner has inspired a bizarrely defensive cult of otherwise intelligent, level-headed people blathering uncritically about “movie magic” while hurling personal attacks at we “bitter fucks” who dare not adore their beloved confection. In the weeks since being underwhelmed by La La Land I’ve been told I have no heart, no love for film and that I must be unable to experience joy. So basically it’s a superhero movie for middlebrows.
The strain shows from the opening number, in which commuters stuck in gridlock on the Los Angeles freeway jump from their cars and begin belting out one of the film’s many unmemorable tunes. Chazelle sneaks his edits inside of whip-pans to give the illusion that this is all taking place in a single, unbroken shot. But his time may have better been spent working on the choreography – which seems to be comprised mainly of the dancers throwing their arms up in the air and then putting them back down again. As with the Full Metal Julliard histrionics of his previous picture Whiplash, there’s no pleasure in the filmmaking here — just the blood, sweat and gritted teeth of Chazelle’s self-conscious virtuosity. Every frame of this film cries out, “Are you not entertained?” Five minutes in I wanted to pat the poor guy on the head, give him a cookie and tell him it’s okay to chill out a little bit.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as Sebastian and Mia, two mismatched lovers struggling to be real artists in a city rotten with commercial compromise. He’s a jazz pianist, one so committed to his art he gets himself fired from gigs all over town for refusing to play standards and improvising like a lunatic instead. On their first date Sebastian takes Mia to a jazz club and mansplains the music to her in that especially insufferable way white boys have of putting people off the entire art form. (It should also be noted that for all of Sebastian’s fanaticism he appears to have no qualms about loudly talking over a live performance.)
Mia wants to be an actress and claims she’s an outcast because she loves old Hollywood movies, yet strangely all we see of this is her lying about a film she hasn’t seen. There’s not really a character here, just lots of vague idealism that Emma Stone’s considerable charisma somehow manages to make watchable. As we’ve seen in films both decent (Crazy Stupid Love) and unwatchable (Gangster Squad), she and Gosling are enormously charming together. Their chemistry props up La La Land for far longer than it should, particularly as these two struggle mightily with the singing and dancing.
(Speaking as someone who still feels sorry for Russell Crowe and Pierce Brosnan, I’ll never figure out why filmmakers continue to insist on casting actors with no musical theatre training in musicals. Were Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick really that busy? Anne Hathaway not returning phone calls? Why go with the one guy from The Mickey Mouse Club who didn’t dance or sing?)
Chazelle studiously mimics the candy-colored palates and elaborate soundstages of classic musicals and ticks off all the expected references without understanding that the pleasures of those old movies lie in their elegance and relaxed grace. Everything’s about exertion with this dude. The writer-director’s monastic bent comes up again in what becomes the movie’s misguided central conflict: John Legend pops up as a hugely successful musician who hires Sebastian to play keyboards in his touring band. But this dream gig isn’t artistically pure enough for Mia, who attends an arena show at which much mockery is made of the audience for enjoying it. Pretty sure I’m not the first to point out that Legend’s band is treated with the derision of Ghost World’s Blueshammer.
Okay, so it was here that I really started to hate Mia. Her guy’s landed a job most musicians would kill for and she’s chewing his broke ass out for not somehow magically finding the money to open his own jazz club instead. She’s also still a fucking barista at this point. And let’s not even get into the ugly optics of the two white leads with middling musical talent being held up as paragons of artistic integrity while John freakin’ Legend is presented as some sort of sellout loser. (He’s also the only black guy in this movie that’s allegedly about jazz, which at least is one more brother than was in Chazelle’s last film about jazz. This is progress, I guess.)
La La Land lunges for the bittersweet melancholy of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, but has no interest in that movie’s heartbreaking economic realities. The super-entitled Sebastian and Mia have amazing career opportunities fall out of the sky into their laps and both get pretty much everything they’ve ever wanted in the end without having to compromise or work very hard. The final ten minutes of La La Land are undeniably effective –just like the ludicrous ending of Whiplash was– because Chazelle knows how to work an audience over until you say “uncle.”
As for the dopey received wisdom that nobody’s making movies in this genre anymore, on my ten-best list last year were both Chi-Raq and Magic Mike XXL – two musicals full of more joy, innovation and imagination in any given number than you’ll find in the entirety of La La Land’s labored, freeze-dried replica.