FILM REVIEW – LA LA LAND. With Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, J. K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Rated PG-13 for some language. 128 minutes.
Inevitably, there’s an end-of-the-year movie that becomes a critics’ darling, is fast-tracked for the Oscars, and those who dissent are looked upon as curmudgeons. This year’s critic’s darling is LA LA LAND, and it’s being hailed as a tribute to the great musical films of the past. If only it was.
The film opens in one of Los Angeles’s frequent traffic jams and then, for no discernible reason whatsoever, people get out of their cars and engage in a big production number. One could argue that all musicals are contrivances, but to succeed the songs have to flow naturally out of the action whether it’s street gangs dancing in “West Side Story” or cavorting dishes in “Beauty and the Beast.”
The whole point of the traffic jam number was simply to set up a meet-not-so-cute between aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). The bulk of the film consists of their up and down romance as Mia tries to make a go of her acting career and Sebastian pursues a dream of opening a jazz club while wrestling if he’s selling out by rejoining a group headed by his old friend Keith (John Legend).
Part of the problem with the casting is that, while strong performers, neither Stone nor Gosling is able to project the sort of larger-than-life personality that is required in musicals. From Ruby Keeler to Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly to Julie Andrews, the characters they played burst into song and dance because mere dialogue would not let them fully express themselves. The brooding Gosling is ill-equipped for such a role in a musical. (For contrast, see how different Marlon Brando is in most of his films from his musical turn in “Guys and Dolls.”)
Stone might have made the grade, but she’s stuck with a cliché-ridden script and heavy-handed direction. When she and her roommates are dancing in the street waving their skirts, it’s not something that expresses anything beyond the director’s idea that that’s what one does in musicals. Indeed, writer/director Damien Chazelle seems to have watched a lot of musicals, but apparently learned nothing from them.
“La La Land” is a film that tries too hard and is always showing how much it’s straining. When Mia and Sebastian go to the Griffith Observatory for a dance number that has them dancing in the stars, it is intended to be a magical moment. Instead, it comes across as forced and contrived, again because it’s serving no purpose except that it’s supposed to look good. Add in an utterly unmemorable song score (you’ll forget the songs while you’re listening to them), and we’re left with something that’s getting praise as if its good intentions are equal to success. They are not.
The last great musical Hollywood produced was “Chicago,” which had the advantage of being an adaptation of a stage show and, fortunately, was made by people who knew how the genre worked. “La La Land” is a musical for people who don’t know or don’t care and, alas, they’re probably the majority.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.