My first reaction to the initial La La Land hype was somewhere along the lines of “Hollywood sure does love a movie where it can masturbate to itself.” This was before the backlash, before the Oscar drama, and even after it walked away with a handful of statues, I still had no real interest in it. Fast forward half a year, enough time to let any preconceived notions to pass (and to allow it to be rented on iTunes), I finally decided I should at least see what all the fuss was about. And while the film is too well made to be considered outright bad, it turns out my original notion was pretty spot on.
All the signs for something made with gold statues in mind are present here. Billed as the return of the old school Hollywood musical, it stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the current Hollywood go to “it” couple. Written and directed by the musically minded Damien Chazelle (the man behind the excellent Whiplash) and you’ve got an equation for award season success. And in that regard, it succeeded, picking up a ton of awards over the course of the year. But the whole isn’t always equal to the sum of its parts, and that is certainly the case here.
La La Land is the story of a struggling actress (Stone) who meets a struggling jazz musician (Gosling) and, despite a rocky first encounter, end up falling in love. The twist on this rather simple tale is that we witness the ups and downs of their relationship via musical numbers, a rarity these days in non-animated films. Stone can carry a tune well enough, though the same cannot be said for Mr. Gosling. His vocal performances aren’t bad enough to take you out of the moment, but they aren’t good enough to give those scenes the weight they deserve. The songs on the whole are also rather forgettable, with the exception of the Oscar winning “City of Stars,” which will have you humming it for days after seeing the film. The next classic Hollywood musical this is not.
The other big draw here is the production design. They dance among the stars in Griffith Observatory! A fully choreographed dance scene breaks out in the middle of a traffic jam! And what about that ending sequence! And while they certainly looked good on a technical level, I felt a lot of the set pieces were missing the emotional weight behind them to elevate the technical wizardry on display. The only exception to this is the aforementioned final sequence, but after seeing it through, it was really only interested in manipulating your emotions, trying to turn this run of the mill love story into something more. The best moments in the film were when we took a step back from the music and flashy effects, stripped the characters down and let them exist with one another. If the story had a little more to it, you could have gotten rid of the musical gimmick altogether.
If it sounds like I’m being too harsh on La La Land, it’s only because I don’t think it deserved all the hype it received, which took attention away from better, more deserving films during the awards season. It’s not an outright bad film, there is way too much talent behind it for that to happen. But it is a disappointing one. And Hollywood sure does love a story about itself, something that reminds itself of where it once was, as a young struggling dreamer trying to catch that big break. And holy hell, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie as in love with itself as La La Land is. Next time take a note from the Notorious B.I.G. and never get high on your own supply.