Dec. 29 2016 01:36 PM

‘La La Land’ a delightful but shallow slice of musical nostalgia

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How old fashioned is “La La Land?” When a ringing cell phone interjects in a scene, it feels like an anachronism. Wait, they didn’t have cell phones back then! Then you have to remind yourself that this movie doesn’t take place in 1955 but in contemporary times. Could’ve fooled me.

“La La Land” charts the romance of Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a pianist and jazz obsessive who is determined to open his own club and save the musical genre he loves. Like his last film, “Whiplash,” writer-director Damien Chazelle chooses artistic ambition as his subject matter. But in “La La Land,” those themes take a backseat to the romance — or at least they’re in the passenger’s seat, rather than behind the wheel. And this is fine, since Mia and Sebastian’s relationship is far more interesting than their clichéd career goals.

But Chazelle should also thank his lucky stars that he managed to cast Gosling and Stone as his leads. Without them, Mia and Sebastian are paper-thin, one-dimensional bores. The only things that distinguish them are their respective career goals, which in Los Angeles aren’t that distinct, especially in Mia’s case. Gosling’s deadpan swagger and comic timing have rarely been utilized better, though his charm is mostly there to cover up the fact that Sebastian is, well, kind of an asshole. And Stone adds her unique vibrancy, intelligence and wit to what could have been a woman so uninteresting it borders on sexist cliché. Her big scene towards the end hints that there’s a much deeper, more compelling dramatic actress lying in wait, rather than just the romantic comedienne she’s often pigeonholed as. Their chemistry is one of the films two biggest virtues. I could have watched them banter and flirt for another hour.

The other virtue is the music, composed by Chazelle’s college classmate and frequent collaborator, Justin Hurwitz. It’s catchy and memorable, if not classic. The best song, “City of Stars,” is the perhaps the least ostentatious, with it’s hypnotic piano melody conjuring a quiet melancholy that’s refreshing in the midst of all the bombast. I don’t think you can ask for much more than a musical with great music.

I have to admit that this movie is an utter delight. But that’s also what gives me pause. It’s a movie that is trying very hard — almost too hard — to get you to like it, and it mostly succeeds. But it also makes me wonder what that charm is trying to cover up or make up for, not unlike Gosling’s portrayal of Sebastian.

Clearly modeled after classic Hollywood musicals of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, “La La Land,” naturally invites comparisons to films of that era. This is ironic, because those comparisons don’t flatter it. The film indulges in the texture of its inspirations and influences without getting at their substance. It knows how those old movies look, sounded and felt but not what made them great. Gosling and Stone are great, but they can’t hope to match Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose dynamic they’re clearly emulating. And the musical numbers, whether in their choreography, performance or direction, don’t achieve the heights of films like “On The Town.” There’s none of the wonder or imagination, none of Gene Kelly’s precision, grace and athleticism. It works as a lovely throwback or imitation, but the film comes up short when compared to the real deal.

Chazelle has frequently described “La La Land” as “a love letter to Los Angeles.” And yet, it’s clear that he doesn’t really know L.A. and has little but contempt, not love, for the city and its inhabitants. The movie depicts L.A. with unoriginal, widely known generalizations. Even I know about the horrendous traffic, cultural gentrification, commercialization and the prevalence of Toyota Priuses in Los Angeles, and I’ve never been further west than Texas. There’s no honest texture to Chazelle’s Los Angeles, and any character the city has is mainly stolen from other movies.

Not to mention that the people who inhabit the film’s version of the city are so vapid, deluded or misguided that they all come off as the butt of a mean-spirited, joke disguised as a compliment. Mia, in her climactic solo number, sings, “Here’s to the ones who dream/foolish as they may seem.” This is lip service to the denizens of Los Angeles, hiding the fact that the movie is spitting in their faces.

Which shows that the movie is actually less about nostalgia than it is about fantasy, a point underlined by the impressive finale. Chazelle doesn’t love Los Angeles, he loves the idea of it, the romantic mask of the City of Angels that Hollywood has been selling us for a century. That’s why he’s chosen to make his musical in the style of classics like “Singin’ in the Rain.” Like Sebastian with jazz, Chazelle thinks they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. He’s wrong, and he lacks the self-awareness to see that he’s been duped by this façade, a fact made evident through all of the film’s problems.

Part of that façade is L.A.’s racial homogeneity. People of color are nearly absent in the film with two exceptions: the opening musical extravaganza, where they’re little more than window dressing, and in the character of Keith (John Legend), an old acquaintance of Sebastian. Keith offers Sebastian a good paying gig in his band, but Sebastian is reluctant, partly because it’s implied that Keith screwed him over before, but mostly because Keith is portrayed as a hack. You see, Keith loves jazz just as much Sebastian and is also trying to save it. But unlike Sebastian, Keith tries to push it in new directions, melding it with pop and electronic music, an approach Sebastian the purist clearly disapproves of. This allows for the film to sub-textually white-splain jazz music to a black man. The audacity, condescension and racism of that aspect alone is infuriating.

The funny thing is, Keith imparts some words of wisdom in the film that Sebastian, and by extension, Chazelle, would have been smart to listen to if they weren’t such arrogant purists who think they’re the only ones who “get” their chosen art forms. Keith lectures Sebastian, saying, “How can you be a revolutionary when you’re such a traditionalist? You’re stuck in the past, but jazz is about the future.” He’s right. All art, whether jazz or cinema, is about looking forward, not backward. It’s about expansion and evolution, not stagnation. Finding new modes of expression, rather than sticking with the old ones. Chazelle doesn’t’ grasp that.

Or maybe he does and he doesn’t care. Maybe he just wanted to make a simple throwback to the great classic musicals. He is, after all, still a young filmmaker, working off that tendency that many suffer from, the desire to not just to be like your cinematic idols but to actually be them. Chazelle isn’t trying to make something similar to “Singin’ in the Rain,” he’s trying to make “Singin’ in the Rain.” It’s just unfortunate that the talented young filmmaker doesn’t understand what his job is and hasn’t figured out what it is he wants to say that will distinguish him.

Look, if you like this film, by all means enjoy it. I don’t mean to rain on your parade. And a little pure entertainment never hurt anyone. It is, after all, a delightful film, and it did win me over, despite my issues with it. Perhaps it’s best to think of it like this: “La La Land” is the movie equivalent of desert. It’s a big, well made, colorful, delicious looking cake. It tastes great and goes down easy. But at the end of the day, it’s empty calories and not very nourishing.