Is the Hollywood musical worth saving? There may be a compelling argument to be made for it, but La La Land, I’m afraid, isn’t it. The movie is popular and is supposedly on track to win a tub of Oscars, including Best Picture. It’s full of music and color, but otherwise it’s a thin and glittery shell with a lot of hollowness at its center. It’s about two young wanna-be entertainers, actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), trying to make it in Los Angeles. They fall in love, but conflicts about artistic integrity threaten their idyll; during one such squabble, I thought, Jeez, I don’t know that I was in the mood to watch New York, New York again.
That Martin Scorsese musical, a flop when first released, still boasts a level of emotional ambition that seems well beyond La La Land. The story is almost offensively simple and streamlined, even though the movie weighs in at a punitive two hours and seven minutes. Sebastian, who dreams of owning his own jazz club, is set up as the white boy who alone can appreciate good music — he certainly appreciates it more than does the slick Keith (John Legend), whose successful, bland-pop band Sebastian is obliged to join to make some money. Mia shows some acting chops in an interrupted audition, but it’s a measure of the movie’s itchy impatience — and that of its young writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) — that when Mia rents out theater space and performs her one-woman show, we don’t see any of it.
No, Chazelle would rather stage elaborate musical numbers, many of which glisten with unmistakable flop sweat. In classic musicals, we didn’t feel (though we could infer) the hard labor that went into the music and the choreography. Here, I kept imagining how many brutal takes must have been necessary to nail such sequences as the meant-to-be-a-wow opener, set on an L.A. freeway. The movie keeps stopping dead for numbers that seem meant simultaneously to honor and to outdo the musicals of yore, with crescendos and fireworks; for a while, we get one climax after another, so it’s not surprising that the film burns itself out fairly quickly, with an hour or so left to go. Gosling and Stone try, but they just don’t speak the language of musicals natively or fluently. We’re put in the position of assessing their crooning or belting as talented amateurs.
La La Land is being predicted (even by its detractors) as the big Oscar winner because, like the equally meretricious The Artist of a few years ago, it pays loving, moist-eyed tribute to The Magic of Movies. (A clip from Rebel Without a Cause provides a few seconds of reprieve from this movie’s faux-classic scheme.) It’s comparable to old Hollywood in at least one significant way: its vision is blindingly white, with John Legend brought in to play a black music star who just isn’t as serious about black music as a white man is. This, apparently, is the sort of thing that passed muster over the six years of writing and revising that it took Chazelle to bring La La Land to the screen. For all that, for all the time and effort the movie took, very little passion comes through. Technically it’s whiz-bang — sometimes it unavoidably comes off as “Hey look Ma, I’m a director!” — but it’s an empty truffle, all sweet surface but nothing inside. A white-chocolate truffle, at that.