Movie Review: La La Land

Musical about Hollywood is uneven but hard to dislike

La La Land
Directed by Damien Chazelle
With Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt

Musicals were a popular genre back in the 1950s and earlier. Writer director Damien Chazelle tries to update the once-popular idea in the new film La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

After a rather rocky start with two awkward production numbers, the film settles down into a fairly standard romantic drama between two people trying to make it big in Los Angeles, one as a jazz night club owner and the other as an actress. The music in most of the later part of the film comes more naturally from the story, only to spill over into awkward set pieces again at the end. So for the most part La La Land is a passable love story with two quite likeable actors, sandwiched between self-important scenes from an overly enthusiastic director who is trying to show off.

Post-modern critics like to go gaga over films about film-making, because the critics can talk about meta-films and some such related nonsense, and these critics are already pushing La La Land as the best film of the year. The fact that a would-be actress walks past a window allegedly seen in the film Casablanca and then talks about her aspirations while standing near a camera filming a scene next to some fake tombstones does not automatically catapult a film into greatness. La La Land is actually better when it is not trying so hard to be too cool for school.

During the rather disconcerting opening, with people in an LA traffic jam dancing for joy on the roofs of their cars, the two main characters almost meet. Mia Dolan (played by Emma Stone) is in the musical traffic jam studying for an audition. She doesn't move when the traffic starts, and jazz musician Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) drives around her, making a rude gesture as he passes. Clearly this will lead to a love story down the road.

The film takes a bit too long to head where everyone knows it is going, and the early scenes drag quite a bit before the two stars manage to get together. Mia is seen auditioning quite a bit, reading ridiculous sounding dialogue, and Sebastian has to play Christmas carols when he would rather play free jazz improvisations, both scenes meant as character development.

Finally the two characters do meet and make a tentative truce, and then sing a duet together in the Hollywood hills. Mia and Sebastian make an attractive couple, and they are good for each other.

Musician John Legend eventually turns up as well to play another jazz musician named Keith, who helps to push the jazz plotline along while adding some upbeat songs in the forms of rehearsals and performances.

Praising the art of jazz is a big theme in the film, and for those lukewarm to the idea La La Land can be a bit preachy, with Sebastian as a dedicated member of the jazz police.

For every good scene, there is an annoyingly contrived one. The main couple sees a James Dean film and then goes to one of the locations of that movie, which miraculously is open in the middle of the night so people can sing and dance in its empty but well-lit hallways, and play with the expensive equipment. A much better and more honest scene is when the couple argues about their future when one person starts to realize their dream and the other doesn't.

In the end, it hard not to like La La Land, with its handsome cast and harmless, bittersweet script. But it is far from original, and incredibly uneven in tone, trying to take in too many styles and genres at once as it oscillates between old-fashioned musical fantasy and more modern romantic drama.

The film is also very oddly reminiscent of Woody Allen's most recent film, Café Society, which features a Hollywood setting, a person with aspirations to run a nightclub and very similar message about relationships.

For a film to take someone to on a date, La La Land is a noncontroversial choice, but in the end not a very memorable movie. The music is mostly original, but the only tune that stands out is when the struggling jazz musician Sebastian is forced to play a cover of the 1981 hit “I Ran (So Far Away)” by A Flock of Seagulls. I think the filmmakers intended the audience to hum a different tun when they left, but failed to provide one.

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