City of Stars
La La Land has, as I write this, been nominated for an astounding 14 Academy Awards, and it is very likely going to win most, or even all, of them. It has a chance of becoming the most decorated film in motion picture history, and if you follow the absurd metric that Oscars are indicative of quality, the best movie ever made. Unfortunately, it is not: it is a slick, glossy mess, full of frustrating moments, lackluster performances, forgettable songs, and arbitrary complications that keep viewers from enjoying what is, at its heart, a well-meaning and kind-spirited piece of art.
That’s not to say that it won’t win. Hollywood absolutely loves movies like La La Land: throwback musicals, films that mythologize the kind of Hollywood that hasn’t existed for half a century, self-referential masturbation over the wonders of the dream factory, uncritical paeans to a Los Angeles that’s only been real in dreams and tourist brochures. La La Land is essentially one of those love letters to the motion picture industry’s idealized image of itself, and that no doubt explains those fourteen nominations. But it’s a failure on almost every level, both fundamental and essential, and gets just about everything wrong about the things it desperately needs to get right. And that’s too bad, because for all its problems, I wanted so badly to like the film, because it has such good intentions. Ultimately, however, they can’t begin to overcome its poor execution.
The plot is, like those of all good musicals, pretty simple: it’s the story of Seb (Ryan Gosling), a struggling piano player with a devotion to jazz, and Mia (Emma Stone), a barista with dreams of becoming a movie star, who try to find love against the backdrop of a modern-day Los Angeles that nonetheless recalls the glory days of Hollywood’s star system. This is the mood that director Damien Chazelle strains mightily to evoke, but right off the bat, he’s got two huge problems: Gosling and Stone are average singers, lousy dancers, and don’t have an ounce of romantic chemistry. The strength of the star system was that it was crammed with great performers who could sing, dance, act, and look like they were genuinely interested in each other with minimal effort. Today’s Hollywood requires the casting of people like Gosling and Stone, who draw huge paychecks but lack the expertise and discipline to pull off what these roles so badly need. This wouldn’t be a huge problem if La La Land were positioning itself as an ironic or post-modern musical, but it’s aiming straight at the heart of Old Hollywood, and that sincerity, while honestly meant, only showcased the inadequacy of the leads. That’s especially evident whenever they’re engaged in a big, show-stopping number, and are being outperformed by all the anonymous extras that surround them.
Another huge issue is the fact that, no matter what kind of a musical La La Land is trying to be, it’s definitely a musical, and the music, well, just isn’t very good. For one thing, the songs (by Justin Hurwitz, Chazelle’s classmate at Harvard), are competent but forgettable; the one memorable number, “City of Stars”, got an Oscar nomination, but so did “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, a dull piece of flash that suffered from poor sound quality and a predictable dance number. As for the rest of it, I couldn’t tell you a single other song, let alone hum one, and I only saw it sixteen hours ago. For another, the movie — like all of Chazelle’s work to date — is obsessed with a kind of purist’s fantasia of jazz, to the degree that in the one scene where someone other than Gosling and Stone have lines, it’s a ridiculous ‘debate’ over making the art form accessible that sounds like it was guest-written by Stanley Crouch. As with Chazelle’s earlier film, the ludicrous and overrated Whiplash, anyone looking for a genuine jazz experience could put a hundred other movies on their list ahead of this one.
All these would be crippling enough for a musical, but La La Land has plenty of other issues. There’s not a single memorable supporting character in the whole thing; calling them “characters” is giving the movie far to much credit. (Again, this wouldn’t be so bad if Gosling and Stone were burning up the screen with charisma, but they most definitely are not.) The plot is an utter trifle, but its problem isn’t so much slightness — almost all great musicals have plots that are pure fluff — as it is laziness: it makes transitions that make no sense, underplays its background action to an enormous degree, and throws up complications that are complete nonsense. This is most evident in its structure, following the four seasons as a template for Seb and Mia’s relationship; but after an hour of unrestrained romantic joy, the ‘argument’ they have that provides an arbitrary roadblock to their relationship is such a non-issue it just seems forced. What’s meant to be a hugely bittersweet dream sequence at the movie’s end is a real puzzler, as its point seems to be that had their lives gone differently, the outcome would have been exactly the same, except with different people.
All the elements that would have made La La Land likable are still here, in one degree or another. It’s professionally made, skillfully lensed (by Linus Sandgren), and with spectacular production design which deserves all the accolades it gets. Chazelle should get credit for his ambition; even when he can’t pull it off, he at least has a pretty coherent vision. And it tries pretty hard to maintain the scope, style, and even innocence of the classic Hollywood period (it’s one of the most chaste romances I’ve seen in ages), even if it fails on all the technical qualities. But its evocation of the studio-system musicals is too slick and commercial, seeming more like a small-screen tribute than a big-screen production, and its attempts to show us the magic and wonder of L.A. is as calculated and familiar as a tourist brochure, leaving out all the rough charm of the city in favor of a greatest-hits montage of obvious locations that might have come from the Chamber of Commerce. All of this serves to obstruct the kind of movie it so badly wants to become; the result is like watching an intricately choreographed dance routine that keeps tripping over its own feet.