Starring Emma Stone. Rated PG.
Sometimes a movie comes along that is so different, so refreshingly light, so right for the moment that people can happily forgive it for not being very good.
As he proved with his hit Whiplash, young writer-director Damien Chazelle has tremendous enthusiasm for genres he poorly understands. That drum-tacular tale posited jazz as a solo act, built around a player who treats art like an Olympic competition.
Despite the whimsical title, La La Land is similarly calisthenic, and now the strain is spread over elaborate dance duets, large-ensemble choreography, and both mechanical and digital special effects—all in Los Angeles settings recalling other, far better movies. The dude sure can spend money!
Some of that dough was well-placed on Ryan Gosling, who makes heavy lifting look easy. As “pure-jazz” pianist Sebastian, part of his hoisting here literally involves Emma Stone, applying her patented perkiness as Mia, the would-be actor and vaguely drawn character who comes to like Seb. He’s not interested, but their paths keep crossing. They have no chemistry, but hell, it’s in the script.
To get things moving, Chazelle has Seb fired from a Christmas Eve restaurant gig for not playing holiday standards straight. This has happened precisely nowhere, ever.
Mild by any measure, his rhapsodic improvisations mesmerize Mia, who nonetheless declares that she hates jazz. So he takes her to a local club and proceeds to drown out the band with a hectoring speech about the importance of their music. (As in Whiplash, racial connotations are totally unexamined.)
Maybe these things wouldn’t matter—musicals are known for their senseless plots—if the songs on offer (with music by one Justin Hurwitz) had the slightest hint of jazz harmony or coloration. Instead, they are all wan ballads in the tuneless Les Mis tradition, with melodies only made memorable through constant repetition. The leads sing and dance well enough, in an effortful way, with none of the joie de vivre (or Cole Porter tunes) that made those Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers movies worth copying.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose, and the retro-worshipping La La Land is pleasant enough to watch. But our nostalgia provides most of the actual feeling.