“La La Land” is like a young Labrador retriever: gorgeous to look at, eager to please, and exhausting. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has set himself a daunting task: create a movie that will rekindle Americans’ affection for both A) big, showy Busby Berkley musicals and B) live improvisational jazz. Reviving one of these flatlining patients would be a miracle; in trying for both, Chazelle stretches his movie’s energy too thin.
However, just as a flawed wedding cake is still cake, there are delights aplenty to be had, chief among them Emma Stone: any movie featuring her questioning eyebrows and lippy attitude has already made several correct decisions. Lots of attention will be justly paid to the costuming in this movie, specifically the use of a yellow dress (and Emma Stone can wear yellow) against a periwinkle sky. But even wearing a coffee-soaked uniform shirt and polyester anorak, Stone’s riveting, capable of communicating snark and humor and despair almost telepathically. Which is helpful, because her character, Mia, is an aspiring actress, and must summon up tempests from thin air in audition after audition, usually in front of bored, texting producers. (The ludicrous lines Mia must recite for these failures are a gem-like recurring bit.) Stuck in a similar position of despair, Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, an achingly earnest young man who storms off his job when asked to play audience-friendly holiday medleys: his heart belongs to old-school, live jazz. Just as Mia is convinced that if she but writes, directs, performs and controls every aspect of her own one-woman play, audiences will respond in droves, Sebastian is convinced that if he could only own, renovate, design, name, and book his own jazz club, people will suddenly rediscover their long-dormant love of extended drum solos and piano improvisation. Both actors are charming and youthful enough to make this kind of winsome naiveté charming (as opposed to, say, incredibly grating), but you still want to see them grow up a bit—even, potentially, encounter a rogue spore or two of reality. John Legend, in an understated and excellent cameo as successful musician Keith, gently tries to talk some sense into Sebastian: “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” His point struck me as tremendous good sense, but the movie’s hell-bent on painting him as a compromising panderer, and Mia and Sebastian as True Artists—Mia produces her play, which takes place entirely in a bedroom and centers on girlhood dreams of Paris, in front of a tiny, disengaged audience, but later discovers that it touched one very important person in a very special way. If your eyes are beginning to roll, welcome to the cynic’s bench in hell, where I have saved you space. By the time Mia launches into her breathy final number, which includes the phrase “Here’s to the dreamers”, the movie has left all earthly cares, and most of its earthly audience, behind. We know that we’re supposed to be uplifted, even enchanted, but the characters’ struggles feel trite and their triumphs unlikely, and that’s the real sticking point—we can accept a world where someone might spontaneously burst into song, but running a successful bar themed on improvisational jazz?
Give us a break.