There is a wide chasm between trying to be great and actually being great. Unfortunately, despite genuine ambition and no small amount of good intent, La La Land does not bridge this distance.
It starts off wrong right from the opening. A supposed bravura break into song number set on a L.A. freeway traffic jam is shot so tightly that it feels small when it’s quite clear that it’s going for the opposite. There’s also an almost filmy quality to the cinematography that I found distancing from a movie that is oh so eager to pull you in.
There has been some scuttle over the less than professional singing and dancing done by the leads. There’s some truth to that. Stone’s voice tops out at “nice”, and Gosling’s…well, let’s say as a singer, he’s not worse than Russell Crowe.
That didn’t need to be a bad thing. My rule for singers is a simple one. Only connect. However, the songs in the film (which aren’t a whole lot more than okay) ask for too much from both of them. Stone’s big scene asks for glory notes she can’t hit, and Gosling’s ask for a nimbleness he doesn’t possess.
Every time anyone else in the movie sings, the shortcomings of Stone and Gosling are made obvious. While it’s never (EVER) a bad thing to hear John Legend step in front of a mic, it’s hard not to think when his character does the nagging feeling of “oh…yeah…this is how it’s done”.
Perhaps the larger issue is that Gosling and Stone don’t have much for parts here. Thinly written and stereotypical, Stone is for too long “just the girl”. While Stone can never be less than charming, and she is clearly giving it her all, there just isn’t much to play.
Gosling is more problematic by far. I can’t believe I’m saying this–as I’ve always been a fan–but it’s hard not to feel that for most of the movie he’s delivering a fairly lazy performance. I never for a second bought him as a jazz guy. It feels like he crammed for the test. Taking lessons and putting his back into it for maybe two weeks prior to the film’s start.
Director, Damien Chazelle (who made the wonderful Whiplash), is clearly going for a mix of old school Hollywood musical and modern romantic drama. You can tell because Stone flips the bird early on and Gosling busts out the captain of curse words midway through. That’s just not enough though.
When the film turns decidedly darker in the third act, it fights manfully against the bubbly front half. When Gosling and Stone begin to experience problems (which basically boil down to “he’s in a band and is away a lot”), the transition is jarring. Like there were 2-3 scenes that should connect the front portion to the back have been cut out.
What’s doubly frustrating about the home stretch is that individual scenes work on their own. A candlelight dinner gone awry and Stone’s overhearing a brutal critique of her play would have been particularly effective in a different movie.
Which is largely the issue overall with La La Land. It does not hold together. As it shambles to its sad-bastardy conclusion (which I think will feel like a kick in the teeth to some moviegoers) it’s hard not to feel like its semi-tragic conclusion is simply not earned.
While sitting in the theater, I began to think of what other directors might have done with the material. Perhaps peak level Spike Lee, or a just post Boogie Nights Paul Thomas Anderson. That’s never a good thing to be doing while staring at the screen.
It’s a sad thing too. La La Land is the kind of movie I want to see come out of Hollywood. Not necessarily musicals per se, but films with scope and ambition. Movies that take chances and shoot for the city of stars that Gosling and Stone sing about.
I just wish this one was better.
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David is an Administrator for The Blue Route. He is a former Journalism major and has written for many on line and print publications outside of The Blue Route, including The Daily Banter. He currently writes on boxing for The Sweet Science when not indulging his political Jones here. You can follow his missives on Twitter @BrotherJulius83