Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress trapped in the industry cycle of waitressing by day and failing auditions by night. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is an ambitious jazz pianist trapped playing Christmas music at a restaurant while dreaming of setting up his own club. After a series of chance meetings they enter into a romantic relationship, while struggling to balance their love for one another with their separate ambitions.
La La Land burst onto cinema screens in 2016 on a wave of enthusiasm, seemingly heralding the return of the big Hollywood musical in much the same way that every Hollywood musical since the 1960s has been claimed to do. At some point fans of the musical genre must accept that their once-mainstream entertainment option does not and will not rule the cinema box office again, but until then each new release must cope with the pressure. In the case of La La Land it was critically acclaimed and nominated for a truckload of awards. It even won the Oscar for Best Picture for all of 25 seconds before the trophy was handed to Moonlight instead.
There is a great film buried somewhere inside writer/director Damian Chazelle’s La La Land. Unfortunately he never quite manages to find it. The film he has made hints at greatness quite regularly, but never seems to fully nail a scene or moment. The promise is everywhere. The anticipation is palpable and regular. It is never completely satisfying. It never goes that extra mile to turn a good scene or moment into a legendary one. It’s songs stick in the head, not in a catchy show tune way but more like an ear-worm. The end result is a film with a lot of intermittent charm and glimmers of profundity, but which is ultimately a bit of a boring confection.
It is worth noting that my opinion appears to be flaunting convention. La La Land was and remains a critics’ darling – particularly on its home ground; if there is one thing Hollywood adores it is films about Hollywood, and the overheated critical reaction served La La Land almost as well as it served The Artist – the industry’s last weirdly over-rated Hollywood-obsessed critical favourite.
The main issue with La La Land is not that it doesn’t do anything well, but rather that it doesn’t do them well enough. It has two solid original songs to it, and variations on the two of them, as well as a couple of dance routines, but at no point does the film completely free itself to indulge in a proper musical sequence. The ones it does undertake are charming and competently staged, but lack that final finesse to really pop off the screen. It is a problem you can sometimes see in a dance routine in any production: a dancer does the movements accurately and in time, but they don’t quite extend their poses far enough, or their movements are not quite crisp enough. You can see that in La La Land‘s stars – they’re competently trained, but clearly not professional dancers – and I think you can see a similar effect writ large over the entire movie. It does the Hollywood musical perfectly well to an extent, but it’s just not extended quite as far as it really needs to go. Basically it is a creative photocopy.
The film works as a nostalgia piece rather than as a fully developed original production. Its characters are thinly drawn and rely on archetype. The challenges that threaten their relationship as the story develops feel oddly superficial and unrealistic. The film has a real issue with Ryan Gosling: his character Sebastian begins and ends the film as unpleasantly conceited, and he seems to experience no life change or fresh perspective as he goes. We are supposed to find him charming, and Gosling does his best to ensure that we do, but there is something about Sebastian’s behaviour that stops that from entirely happening. As Mia, Emma Stone is positively luminous, but she also has to work with a relatively weak character. There is not a problem in trading in archetypes as a starting point, but by failing add anything fresh to either protagonist Chazelle leaves his actors doing all of the heavy lifting.
The film abounds in cliches about acting, auditions, Hollywood and jazz. It feels very tired watching one character (almost always male) explaining to another character (almost always female) about how she hates jazz because she does not actually understand jazz, and in educating her leads to realise she actually likes it quite a lot. Then there is the division of the plot into seasons, which announce themselves periodically with titles on the screen. It is all so dreadfully familiar.
There are good elements. Some of the dialogue sparkles. Some of the sequences are very imaginatively staged and realised. The film’s climax comes very close to being the single-best sequence I’ve seen in a film this year, but it winds up taking a wrong direction and running for too long. Gosling and Stone have an exceptional chemistry, and remain two of the best actors of their generation. The fact that they are playing two intensely self-centred and deeply tiresome characters is what lets them down.
There’s nothing more frustrating than a capable film that makes it clear it could – and should – have been a great film. La La Land does a lot right, but it doesn’t do enough right and leaves a few too many cliches lying around to properly impress. I was not surprised to see it get the acclaim it received. After all, it is superficially bright, charismatic and pleasantly nostalgic. On the other hand I think the Emperor may not be fully dressed on this one: it is repetitive, unoriginal, and feels so needlessly smug that you want to give it a slap.