Emma Stone’s features are too big for her face, which in a sense makes her the perfect star for La La Land, a small* movie with outsized ambition. It’s an old-fashioned, earnest musical—characters break into song, perform choreographed dances, smile big and provide ample jazz hands. It’s all wonderful and a bit silly at the same time, and how much you like it may depend on how tolerant you are of Emma Stone’s tendency to communicate a range of emotions with a twist of her lip.
La La Land also hasn’t met a cliche it can’t run headlong into, and I’m still not sure it has much interesting to say about those cliches. (Did you know, for example, that traffic can get pretty backed up in L.A?) After a spectacular, faux one-take opener, the movie caroms through a girl-meets-boy plotline, or rather a Struggling Actress-meets-Jazz-Loving Sellout Asshole plotline, replete with Justin Hurwitz songs that pay homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals. (The tunes are solid, if not quite memorable enough for you to hum them on the walk home.)
The movie flatlines in the second act before settling on its real topic, one borrowed from writer-director Damien Chazelle’s previous movie, Whiplash: what price success? The answer in Whiplash was essentially “bloody fingers and all of your soul.” The answer here is more like “a little integrity and maybe your ultra-passionate relationship with the only other person in town who still dresses like it’s 1957?” This lowering of the stakes makes La La Land feel a little less vital, if a little more light, than its predecessor.
I’ve somehow made it this far without mentioning The Patron Saint of Beards—and a man whose features are perhaps too small for his face—Ryan Gosling, who plays the aforementioned Jazz-Loving Asshole (which is, it seems, Chazelle’s favorite character to write). Pretty much anyone other than Gosling** would’ve made this character insufferable. Gosling does this by showing admirable restraint, as if breaking into a tap routine is no big deal, and by playing his character with more self-awareness than the script suggests. (He’s the kind of income-less schlub who can’t pay his bills—there’s literally an envelope with a giant “Past Due” on it, in case you miss the point—but can afford a few handsome-as-hell sport coats. I gotta think the La La Land Tie Collection is due at Barneys any day now.)
The movie builds to a worth-the-wait showpiece: a Singin’ in the Rain-style pastiche of movie musical styles that pays homage to An American in Paris, On the Town, and countless others I probably missed***. It’s romantic in every sense of the word, much like the film itself. Also like the film itself, it left me a little cold, a little too aware of how smart and history-aware and hard-working the movie is.
Some other thoughts:
-J.K. Simmons, the memorable jazz fascist from Whiplash, appears here as a charmingly strict club owner. I like to think the movies take place in the same universe, and that Simmons’ character has moved to L.A. and (only slightly) mellowed out.
-The Rebel Without a Cause / planetarium scene is a real keeper.
-More great casting (and a small spoiler): Thomas Everett Scott—who played Jazz-Loving Sellout Asshole in That Thing You Do!—plays Emma Stone’s husband at the end.
-It’s obvious La La Land’s gonna win all the Oscars, since there’s nothing Hollywood loves more than patting itself on the back. And hey, it worked for The Artist.
*-And by small I mean “has a budget that’s a sliver of what’s needed for your standard-issue superhero movie, but still more than you or I will make in a year or maybe even a lifetime.” That kind of small.
**-Miles Teller, of Whiplash and terrifying Esquire profile fame, was originally slated to star. Holy hell would that have been terrible.
***-So where does La La Land rank in the pantheon of recent movie musicals? Well, it’s a welcome rejoinder to the pomo deconstructionism of Moulin Rouge and (good lord) Dancer in the Dark. It’s also a lot more entertaining than, say, Chicago, which bizarrely edited out all of the dancing, which is in a way why we see musicals. So I suppose it’s the best of these, even if it ultimately made me want to go back and watch all of Gene Kelly’s movies instead.