Every decade, Los Angeles changes identities like an actress renovates her face. In the ’60s, it bred hippie cults and killers; the ’70s belonged to smog alerts and porn. The ’80s were dominated by hair metal screeching down the Sunset Strip, and the ’90s placed O.J. Simpson and Rodney King at the center of the national conversation. At the turn of the 21st century, the city struggled to distance itself from the media sharks chumming Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Tara Reid’s Thong Squad. These L.A.s were prickly and interesting. When out-of-towners sneered that they’d sooner die than live there, the city grinned. Los Angeles loved itself. Who needs outside approval?
But today’s L.A. is desperate for faves. It’s finally poised to swipe New York’s trophy as America’s cultural capital and the city feels pressured to sweep up for company. Now everything is nice, sunny, and inoffensive, except in price — a jewel box designed to showcase a $12 avocado toast. And here, right on cue, comes Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle, who ditches those dark Manhattan basements to shoot a commercial for California. His new film, La La Land, is a musical romance starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as wannabes who fall in love with each other’s ambitions, and then decide their egos don’t have room for two careers. She’s an actress. (This is Hollywood, after all.) He’s a jazz musician. (This is a Damien Chazelle film, after all.) And the movie is an overpriced mason jar that poaches its artificial authenticity from the past.
Chazelle toots his aspirations before the film even starts. The screen widens and “CinemaScope” screeches across the darkness over a trumpet blast. This, says Chazelle, is an event. And it is, almost. La La Land opens with a dizzying one-take dance sequence on a gridlocked freeway where telegenic lovelies burst out of their cars and bounce on the hoods. They’re all young and diverse and clad in primary colors, including a giddy guy in a red cap, red shirt, red shoes, and red kneesocks. Behold Chazelle’s rainbow-drenched fantasy of Los Angeles, which he makes slightly more credible by the detail that everyone owns an aging sedan.
The camera is better choreographed than the humans. It pivots and swoops and shimmies between side mirrors, while the hoofers just tend to fling their arms the way comics do when imitating bad Broadway. “It’s another day of sun,” they belt into the brightness. Then they climb back into their seats and Chazelle overlays the word “winter” — the best gag in the movie.
Chazelle knows how to make an entrance. Nothing in this sequence belongs to him: the throwback number, the retro-styled dresses, the musty cracks about L.A. traffic and weather. Even the deco font is an homage. But his remix is so confident that for a second you believe you’re seeing something new. I’ve seen La La Land twice, and both times I chuckled politely at Chazelle’s jokes about the fake palm trees, gluten-free zealots, arcane parking rules, omnipresent Priuses, and ghastly murals of James Dean. It’s the same smile you grant when a stand-up follows a flubbed punch line with, “Try the veal.” The laugh isn’t earned; it’s gifted.
Though Chazelle moved to Los Angeles in 2009, he seems to move through it in isolation, the way a nervous kid does at a new school when he's terrified of making enemies, and too caught up in his own brain to make friends. He'd rather be likable, which means aping likable stuff. Not just old musicals, but the softball humor of Woody Allen's Annie Hall, which joked that LA's only cultural advantage is turning right on red. (Just wait till they discover turning left on red -- that's when the real magic happens.)
Nostalgia — especially the type of nostalgia designed solely for knowing nods — gets in the way of the film’s ability to run. Eventually, La La’s light-footed glee will trip over its baggage. Maybe you’ll roll your eyes when, after Stone clicks her car fob like a castanet (the film’s first and only modern touch), Gosling swings on a lamppost like Singin’ in the Rain. Or when Stone slips into yet another modest Umbrellas of Cherbourg–styled frock to attend yet another hip Hollywood party blasting jazz instead of the chill-out synth music that numbs most soirees. Or maybe you’ll hold out until Chazelle can’t think of anything better to do than stick balloons in Stone’s hands like Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. You’re forever getting kicked out of the moment and asked to applaud.
Stone deserves that ovation. There’s not much to her ingenue, Mia. She’s a barista and possibly a brilliant actress. But Stone fills her with life. She doesn’t just read lines; she seems to live each syllable individually — she can change emotions mid-word. Early on, Mia auditions for a part where a mistress is dumped over the phone. Chazelle keeps the camera on Stone’s face and we see her whirl through five feelings in one minute: delight, confidence, panic, pain, false bravado. Her left eyebrow tilts up, her eyes water but refuse to cry, her face bends in on itself, and then suddenly it flattens into ice. “No, I am happy for you,” she glowers. Then there’s a knock on the casting-office door and Stone shifts again to look at us in alarm. Should she keep going? Can she salvage the magic?
She can’t. Another day, another failure. And the next times we see Mia attempt to act, she’s reading for parts she and Chazelle think are beneath her, like nurses, cops, and sassy urban teachers. She’s as bad as the material. “It’s Dangerous Minds meets The O.C.," she groans to Sebastian, Gosling’s piano player. Then she gets a callback. Suddenly, she loves the show. Now she insists it’s Rebel Without a Cause.
Mia and Sebastian have little in common, at least from what we get to know of them. (They do all their talking, or really, bickering, at the beginning — almost every interaction after their first kiss is a dance number.) She adapts to the world; he shuns it. She’s pragmatic about her odds of success; he’s an idealist who can’t take advice. When she explains why she wants to perform, he takes one snippet of her story and decides she’s really a playwright, as though dating an actress would be too cliché. Later, he throws the word “actress” at her like an insult, and she takes it as one, even though it’s simply a fact. Even Stone’s wide, cat-eyed features are at odds with Gosling’s long, narrow jaw. When they kiss, it’s like an apple colliding with a banana. For extra impact, their first smooch gets a celebratory blaaaarp of horns.
But where Mia and Seb intersect is their shared belief that the world is divided into vulgarians and artists. Vulgarians make Mia croak audition lines like, “No, Jamal, you be tripping.” They’re the restaurant manager (Whiplash’s J.K. Simmons in an anti-jazz cameo) who forces Seb to pound out obnoxious renditions of “Camptown Races” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” his fingers snapping back from the piano keys like they burn. They’re the people who don’t respect purity, the people who buy a historic lounge and turn it into a samba tapas restaurant — “samba tapas!” swears Seb, like a curse. They’re people like his former bandmate, Keith (John Legend), who wants him to join his fusion-jazz combo where the ditties are so simple Seb can play the keyboard solos with one hand.
“How are you gonna save jazz if no one is listening?” chides Keith. “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” I wonder if Chazelle has an answer to his own question. Instead, he has a rebuttal: Keith’s group is awful. But they’re popular. There’s a suspicion that to Chazelle, those traits dovetail. It’s unclear how much he respects Mia and Seb’s talents. Unlike Keith, Seb can write a beautiful song, a track called “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme.” It’s a mournful piano ballad, so perfect that he plays it over and over again and never bothers to compose anything else. (You could say the same thing about Chazelle, who has now written three films about jazz obsessives.)
Meanwhile, Seb and Mia sing songs about noble dreamers, whom the film pretends to value. But when Chazelle pans across a pool party, he seems to hiss that none of these fools will succeed. Definitely not the blustering screenwriter who corners Mia with a monologue about his surefire franchise, and almost certainly not her three actress roommates, each lovely and long-stemmed and dismissed.
Thankfully, Stone has a gift for self-mockery. Mia preens like she knows actresses are L.A.’s cheapest joke. She thrusts her chin in the air like a show pony and, right when she’s about to start dancing, throws back her entire torso like she’s building up momentum to make an ass of herself. Of course, she doesn’t. She has a silvery, ribbon-thin voice that slices through the dramatic music, and a model’s control of her limbs that she sometimes uses to look like a klutz. Gosling sings well enough, like the guy at karaoke who’s practiced his Sinatra for five years. And he dances like he thinks he’s smooth, which makes it inadvertently hilarious when he does an awkward spinning twirl, legs curled up like a dead spider.
But Stone is blessed, which means we know that Mia’s dreams must come true no matter how much the lyrics protest. Chazelle favors her over every other character, particularly Sebastian, who reveals himself to be a bit of a fraud. (He thinks it doesn’t count as selling out if you’re a jerk to the buyers.) In one scene, we follow her out of the ladies’ room at a cocktail party and, like her, discover the rest of the attendees have turned into statues. We both gawk at this strange, red-lit space, and then the camera circles behind her head for another surprise: outside this hot living room, the courtyard is covered in white snow.
The double take is gorgeous. Chazelle’s signature move is to soak in a spectacle and then abruptly pivot for a second shock. In the opening, he spins from frenetic movement to languor; later, from a huge sky to a cluttered street. He likes things large and commanding — the film is made for the big screen. He shoots two close-up scenes in front of a bold green curtain, and the sunset is perennially cartoon purple. He loves dimming the lights until you can only see his star.
If only the script measured up to the craft. La La Land gives us no reason to root for Mia and Seb’s romance, except for its blithe assurance that you will because you loved Stone and Gosling together in Crazy, Stupid, Love. They’re stereotypes who only talk about work, even when they’re breaking up. There are a million people just like Mia and Seb in town — the movie says so itself. Chazelle undervalues and overvalues them all at once, and when he makes his feeble case for why they should stay together, it’s unchallenged wish fulfillment where he erases even more of their personalities to make the claim that any two attractive people could make a baby if they were nicer and luckier and fated to be famous.
Of course, fantasies sell musicals. Here, the dream world reigns supreme. And La La Land is a strong contender to dominate the Oscars; Academy voters can’t help picking the film that elevates their jobs to a moral imperative (see also: The Artist, Birdman, Argo). But I can’t help wishing that La La Land felt more like Chazelle’s personal vision — that he tap-danced his own path — instead of this eager-to-please mash-up, the movie equivalent of samba tapas. As Sebastian sighs, “That’s L.A. They worship everything and they value nothing.” Maybe Chazelle fits in after all.