Anticipation is a tricky thing. Sometimes, it’s delicious, creating a path to gratification with trickles of delight. Sometimes, it’s deceptive, laying out juicy promises that will never be delivered. The former journey I experienced anticipating the oddball wonder Swiss Army Man. Each eccentric ad and confounding marketing ploy stoked my hopes, and then the film itself delivered, being more bonkers and poignant than I dared dream. The latter path—intense anticipation followed by profound disappointment—came courtesy of the wildly praised and frankly overrated La La Land.
I know. I can hear your lamenting from here. I’m sorry. Really. Like Doctor Who level sorry.
As follow-up to his Oscar-winning Whiplash, writer/director Damien Chazelle offers a love letter to Hollywood and its dreamers with the musical La La Land. Vivid in color and rich with whimsy, the ambitious film pulls heavily from just about every musical Gene Kelly ever two-stepped in. It begins boldly, with a rousing musical number on a traffic-locked freeway, where drivers burst from their vehicles to dance, sing, and do acrobatics to establish the breezy and bright aesthetic amid the crushing realities of Los Angeles, including squashed dreams and frustrating car culture. Following this dynamic introduction, things sour as Chazelle spins a clunky love story with some wince-inducing execution.
Emma Stone stars as barista/aspiring actress Mia, while her Crazy, Stupid, Love co-star Ryan Gosling plays a down-on-his-luck jazz musician named Sebastian. The pair crosses paths rudely and repeatedly, flipping the bird, trolling with cheesy song requests, and delivering brusque body checks. They sling shade and sing about how perfect their sunset stroll might be if only they were in love. And it’s beautiful. They’re beautiful. Yet these unlikely lovers feel inevitable, while their romance feels forced. The spark and sexual chemistry the charismatic couple shared in Crazy, Stupid, Love is quenched by Gosling’s overdone bad attitude. He glowers and glares, and even if he looks like Ryan Gosling, I wondered why delightful Mia would bother with this snarling jazz snob. Admittedly, these alluring actors dance together like a dream. But their banter lacks zing, keeping the central romance from sizzling.
Worse yet, Chazelle’s screenplay is hokey to the point of stupidity. Mia laments that she can’t get good roles. So Sebastian tells her to write her own! Despite this being the first piece of advice every single person ever gives an actor with such a complaint, Mia regards this as revolutionary thinking, and quickly pens a one-woman show. In exchange, she gives Sebastian obvious advice that he believes to be astonishing instead of “uh duh.” The plot is paper thin, and with the leads’ star power strangely failing, I grew impatient with this pretty but vapid tale of snarky dreamers in love.
From the trailer, I’d thought the casting of Gosling and Stone was inspired, promising swoon-worthy charisma and cinematic seduction. But in the film itself, they are a jarring choice. Inert chemistry aside, both are too beautiful to sell the film’s stakes. In a land where countless artists try to win fame and fortune, these insanely good-looking people seem destined for success whatever their talents. And as Stone and Gosling are the biggest names in the film, their being surrounded by lesser-knowns makes them stand out all the more. The finale feels ever inevitable. I mean, if you really—for a moment—want me to believe Mia and Sebastian may not “make it” in La La Land, maybe don’t have them be the most gorgeous people in your movie.
Beyond that, the film’s casting does that thing that’s meant as progressive, but becomes problematic. People of color are present, but only in minor roles. The supporting cast includes J.K. Simmons as a crumudgeonly club owner, Rosemarie DeWitt as a nagging sister, and Finn Wittrock as a handsome
obstacle boyfriend. John Legend pops by for a few brief scenes as Sebastian’s bandmate; Sonoya Mizuno, and Callie Hernandez shimmy through as Mia’s quick-to-vanish roommates. And aside from a spattering of background actors, that’s it for people of color. In modern-day Los Angeles. Which means La La Land—perhaps inadvertently—taps into a less charming Hollywood trope: POC are just supporting players to the more valued stories of white people. This makes La La Land’s casting a major missed opportunity. If even one of the leads was a person of color, the heroes’ struggle to break through would have had greater dramatic stakes, alluding to Hollywood’s lily-white hiring tendencies. But La La Land chooses to fawn, offering only the most cliched complaints about Hollywood with cold casting directors and callous audition rooms. Which is a safer choice if you’re playing the award season game. It’s also a dull one.
I admire Chazelle’s goal: a contemporary musical pulling from Classic Hollywood conventions with a modern wit, dazzling beauty, and charm-bomb star power. But the script is weak. The songs are largely forgettable. The musical loses flow when numbers screech to silent stops, kicking into a new sequence with no grace. And the performances are just fine, save for Stone who goes for the gusto in her final, tear-streaked and starry-eyed monologue. There she delivers this year’s equivalent to Anne Hathaway’s Les Miserables solo. It can’t save the movie, but it might earn Stone the Oscar win she’s been courting.
Still, for all this, La La Land is cute, sometimes gorgeous, but not good.