La La Land

La La Land ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

La La Land feels disingenuous to me. I'm not sure if it's an intentional and winking lie or a sell-out lie, or a lie borne of writer's block and resignation, but it seems a lie lies here.

Beneath the sweeping and cascading camera movements, beneath the repetitive but welcome lighting cues, beneath the cutesy, consolidated colors and the attention-calling, nostalgia-dripped staginess of the sets, there's Chazelle talking a lot and not really saying anything.

As with Whiplash, he opts for characters seemingly representing parts of himself. There, Teller was Chazelle, faced with a Hobson's choice: commit and become an all-time great or actually live a life and accept your choice to fall short of a truly awesome legacy.

Here that internal conflict is reprised to an extent, with Sebastian (Gosling) and Mia (Stone) choosing to follow their dreams despite knowing it ends their potential life together, but this time it feels far less sacrificial and dichotomous. Sprinkled on top of all that is the question of whether art is worthwhile if it isn't popular, or whether interest and affection for art is sufficient to make it worthwhile.

Somewhat disappointingly, these questions aren't really answered. In fact, Chazelle doesn't even really push us towards any kind of consideration, instead attempting to elicit sympathy by showing how down-on-their-luck these nice and committed people are and then reveling in romanticism by allowing them to fulfill their dreams in Technicolor and swing, only to close by buoying the idea with some bittersweet but also intangible and effervescent montage that's apparently supposed to be the tradeoff between art's pain and art's reward.

Some of it works, and some of it doesn't. The idea of how to push forward while appreciating what's behind you is interesting, but there are no real, forward-moving conversations had in La La Land about this, just snippets recursively alluding to the problem at hand. The solutions in this film then come in the form of either selling out and biding your time or relying on an extraordinarily timely deus ex machina.

It's fair to say that this is a film with more emphasis on color, motion, and the ability of cinema to transcend time and space than 90+% of what's out there, but as for the idea that La La Land is "radical" or "revolutionary" or "a breath of fresh air": there's literally nothing new here. In fact, this is en vogue. This is, ironically, what's marketable and hip and pandering to the minor masses that are cinephiles, bloggers, hipsters, etc. That woman who demanded a refund for her bagel because it contained gluten would adore this film.

And that's not me condemning it for appealing to that crowd. Nor am I condemning anyone for liking (or loving) this film. I like this film. But this film is the equivalent of the band Sebastian goes on tour with: it's a glossed up retread with enough technical proficiency and tried-and-true formula-following to masquerade as thought-provoking and new while checking as many boxes as possible.

Though I'm not sure, I suspect Chazelle feels the same way. What's interesting is whether he cares. Does he feel like a sell out? Does he doubt his ability to be his own person? If Gosling is representative of him, it would seem not. He just does what's he's asked and cashes the checks, a practiced smile on his disinterested face.

In any case, there are plenty of things to praise here independent of the script and its dubious implications.

Gosling and Stone both give terrific performances, even if neither is a particularly great singer or dancer. I don't think either was markedly bad (though Gosling's singing was certainly a notch below Stone's), but they're not exactly a joy to take in under those departments.

Honestly, the music and dancing in general leave a lot to be desired. Not only are most of the lyrics pretty basic and overly self-indulgent, but the music itself lacks much imagination or catchiness. Again, none of the numbers are bad exactly, but I didn't find any to be particularly memorable or unique either.

More concerning is that this film seems to occasionally forget it's a musical at all, with songs peppered in unevenly and without advancing the plot much during their runtime. The middle hour or so hardly contains any new songs.

The plot itself, removed from its visual presentation, is very standard, complete with a lame and predictable breakup scene that doesn't make a lot of sense. The performances make it easier to swallow, and there aren't any outright eye-roll-inducing lines, but it's a peculiar and needless detour into Lifetime territory that only serves to further dilute our only two characters' personalities.

Those two are fleshed out to some extent, but they only seem to be their surface level descriptions: Sebastian really likes jazz and he's stubborn and sad; Mia loves movies, and she's...a pretty nice person? I mean seriously, there is just not much to these characters in terms of depth or singularity, which is a problem amplified by the fact that there essentially are no other characters.

Still, credit where it's due for the bright lights, the energy, the set design, and the unconventional perspectives. I just wish it felt a little less calculated and unjustly celebratory.

The ending montage, while fine in its message and praise-worthy in its fluid execution, is predictable in its outcome and serves to undercut what should be a heart-breaking moment by turning it into the kind of faux-sadness you hear someone put on when a puppy frowns, rather than a gut-wrenching sorrow that makes your throat heavy.

If the lights and the town and the dresses and the sounds and the passion and the moon and the whites of their eyes were really as bright and colorful and wonderful and romantic as all that, then the death of those things, at least between these two, is being treated far too lightly for my taste. Either it was that big or it wasn't.

Sadly though, you don't find out which. Instead, La La Land opts to swim blissfully unresponsive in its fantasy, ignoring the hard questions and favoring a temporary high over any kind of honest investigation.

Thankfully, there's still enough slick skill behind the camera and light-hearted fun in front of it to help make up for that.

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