The Good: Decent direction, Emma Stone is fine
The Bad: Dull characters, Boring plot, Indistinct musical numbers
The Basics: La La Land is a gimmick win for Oscar Pandering Season, but is annoyingly insubstantial.
One of the true terrible aspects of being a film reviewer is that, in order to retain any level of credibility, reviewers must experience some works outside their comfort and known enjoyment zone. I, for example, have among my "gimmicks" an obsession with watching every film that has won the Best Picture Oscar. Long before I built up my love of films across a number of genres, I decided that if I was going to be a film reviewer, it was important for me to understand the history of film. Despite that, I never believed that I had to sublimate my personal preferences for popular opinions; there are a number of films that won Best Picture that I assert are utter garbage and some "great" films that I found boring and unimpressive - Citizen Kane (reviewed here!), for example. In recent years, I have tried to get ahead of my Best Picture Project (check it out here!) by watching as many of the Best Picture nominees before Oscar night and with its massive victory at the Golden Globes, today I decided I had to watch La La Land.
La La Land is an inevitable "gimmick nominee" for Best Picture and unfortunately, the Academy has a history of leaping on gimmick nominees, like The Artist (reviewed here!). For my money, though, the novelty of making a silent black and white film or a musical does not at all impress me over the merits of a film with interesting characters and a decent plot. La La Land is exceptionally well-choreographed and directed and Emma Stone is adorable as hell (she is a talented actress, but La La Land is not one of her great performances as the character she plays is very much below her acting abilities - though her dance skills in the film are impressive), but it is not a very complex or engaging film. Despite the bright colors (we get it Damien Chazelle, each roommate gets her own solid color dress), La La Land is flat and boring most of the time and the musical numbers are hardly distinctive.
On the same day as she is stuck in traffic and gives the finger to Sebastian, Mia leaves work at the coffee shop early to go to an audition. There, she makes so little of an impression that people walk in while she is performing. That night, she is out at a club with her friends and she hears Sebastian playing the piano. Sebastian spends the same day mourning his lack of a career as a jazz piano player and his inability to finance his own club. Come Spring, Sebastian is working parties as a background piano player for a small band when Mia encounters him again. The two start to talk about their goals and dreams.
By summer, Mia and Sebastian are dating and Sebastian starts to woo Mia into liking jazz. Sebastian encourages Mia to write and perform her own play, while Mia encourages Sebastian to take more opportunities to get his music out. Sebastian takes a job working for a rock band, where his piano playing is used more as samples in the background. Sebastian continues to work for the band, even when Mia stages her one-woman show and he has to miss her ill-attended, highly-critized play. As their relationship experiences tension, both have to decide between following their dreams and being with one another.
La La Land suffers almost instantly on two important fronts, a prioritization of style over substance and a fundamental lack of chemistry between the protagonists. Writer and director Damien Chazelle makes La La Land look good. I went into La La Land with no knowledge of the film outside the fact that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling were at the top of the cast list and knowing it won a lot of big awards at the Golden Globe Awards, so I was somewhat surprised when the film opens with a big musical number set in Los Angeles gridlock. La La Land looks good and the dance numbers are well-choreographed. I watched La La Land two hours ago and not a single musical number stuck in my head; while the film looks great, it's no Singin' In The Rain (reviewed here!) on the song front.
That sense of prioritizing style over substance continues into the characters and it guts the emotional resonance of La La Land. Mia is established as a struggling actress with no noticeable dramatic experience - she wrote plays as a child, but it seems like the came to Hollywood to be an actress without having high school or college theater successes that made her believe she was pursuing even a partially reasonable dream - and she is given remarkably little superfluous (or actual) character traits. So, given that one of her few character traits is that she actually does not like jazz, naturally Sebastian sets to changing her mind. La La Land is troubling in that Mia has a pretty flat characterization and so does Sebastian . . . and Sebastian completely steamrollers Mia. La La Land presents such a generic interpretation of adult relationships that the man cannot accept a difference in musical tastes?! That could be fine, but La La Land then forces the relationship.
La La Land forces the romantic relationship based more on plot convenience than actual character commonalities. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have had amazing on-screen chemistry in other films (like Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, it seems they come as a package deal!), but in La La Land they present their characters so flatly that there is no real spark between them on-screen. Gosling and Stone have amazing timing for their synchronized dance moves in La La Land, but that is the height of their on-screen skill in the film.
La La Land might dazzle visually, but like most special-effects driven films, it is high on flash and hype, low on substance and enduring greatness. Stone and Gosling are not presenting a timeless couple or even well-developed conflict in La La Land. It might be the big winner at the Golden Globes, it might well get nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and it could win, but as Academy voters truly consider it, I'd encourage them to ask "How often do you really pull The Artist off the shelf to watch it?" Not everything has to be a comparison - in fact, La La Land is objectively unimpressive - but sometimes it helps to recall that the Academy has made some bad choices when it comes to voting for the flash-in-the-pan novelty film as opposed to a movie of substance.
For other movies currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
War On Everyone
Underworld: Blood Wars
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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