Damien Chazelle knows how to connote exuberance, but he hasn’t figured out how to convey it. His eagerness to demonstrate an idea of technical mastery made some sense in his breakthrough feature, Whiplash, whose blend of long takes and assaultive edits were an apt but strained reflection of the try-hard demeanor of the film’s jazz-drummer protagonist. La La Land wastes no time announcing Chazelle’s intentions to bring the same aesthetic of skilled mimicry to his ambitiously mounted but strangely neutered musical: The film’s opening scene is a single-take, whip pan-laden song-and-dance number set in the midst of a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway.
The sequence is an appropriate opening salvo for a film that’s primarily about the idea of its own miraculous existence, an early-aughts Gap ad blown up into a grand scale as a diverse flash mob of struggling actors clad in solid colors deliver a hollow vocal performance about the glorious “Technicolor world” of the movies (this one in particular). In the thick of this bombastic traffic standstill are Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), two characters quickly defined by their automobiles. Rather muddily conceived as a pragmatic dreamer, Mia idles in her Prius while Sebastian honks impatiently behind her in his classic convertible as he futzes with his cassette deck, replaying the same few notes of a jazz track over and over again. They’ll meet angry again before they finally meet cute, a struggling actress and a struggling musician united by their vacillations about whether or not it’s worth being a dreamer in these post-nostalgic times.
Like the film’s central romance, every element of La La Land is bound up in a referentiality that largely precludes the outpourings of emotion we come to musicals for. An entire wall of Mia’s bedroom is a segment of an Ingrid Bergman poster, and the apartment’s common spaces (populated by a chorus of aspiring actresses) feature posters for Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat and Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field. Despite her adulation for old Hollywood, Rebel Without a Cause is a blindspot, so Sebastian takes Mia to see it—at a scantily attended repertory screening, because no one cares about timeless classics in this world built to honor them—before they end their date at the Griffith Observatory, losing all sense of gravity and dancing into the stars.
Mia and Sebastian’s romance is marked with a hesitance that’s meant to dissipate whenever the set lighting dims and is replaced by one idle spotlight. This visual motif repeats a handful of times, but it’s only in the final act where the film’s deviations from its built reality are accompanied by a genuine sense that the characters are experiencing romance or longing with a semblance of conviction. La La Land’s dearth of feeling pervades even its most conventionally romantic ballads, with Gosling and Stone singing delicately as they hit their dance steps, aping Astaire-Rogers numbers with dutiful fealty.
Most of the film’s problems are embodied in Sebastian, a clear stand-in for Chazelle. Like any cinematic jazz fiend, Sebastian refuses to compromise for his art, but he’s aware that his preferences are arcane. He uses phrases like “rope-a-dope” and dreams of bringing the smoky jazz club back to L.A., but his lone career prospect comes with a band whose attempts to integrate the genre into a palatable pop format. Sebastian is, at once, supposed to be an embodiment of the screwball musical hero and a representation of its demise. (Gosling’s tetchy performance has the same comic tempo as his work in this summer’s The Nice Guys, but none of the self-effacing charm.)
This duality imparts an obstinate glumness on Sebastian, one that La La Land’s ebullient sets and fetching costume design try to mask with bouts of razzle-dazzle. Worse, his puritanical belief in jazz throws the film’s conscious attempts at race-blindness—signified in the utopian opening number—into disarray. The pianist sells out in order to earn a paycheck gig with the all-black band led by singer Keith (John Legend), a capitulation that results in an uneasy series of scenes where Sebastian stands alongside the group, disdainfully plinking on synthesizers. When Mia attends a performance by the group, the camera dwells on Stone’s quicksilver facial expressions, which in this problematized instance are utterly inscrutable.
Elsewhere, it’s easy to see what Chazelle was after throughout La La Land: The film’s longing for simpler times is a conscious mirror of Singin’ in the Rain, the shifting fortunes of its stars reference A Star Is Born, and it’s all laced with the bittersweet aftertaste of Jacques Demy and capped off with an alternate-universe fantasia redolent of the finale of An American in Paris. What the director overlooks is that these are very different films with distinct ideas about technology, fame, and romance. La La Land’s attempt to alchemize the canonical musicals into some kind of meta-modern fillip might have worked if the result ever demonstrated its own sensibility, but there’s very little to contemplate, let alone swoon over, throughout.
With the penultimate song, “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” Stone manages to belatedly inject some stakes into the film’s minor-key romance, and Chazelle’s images are often lovely, keeping his stars low in the frame as the expense of Hollywood subsumes them. The director’s retro fetishism proves capable but inert, the guiding force of a machine ruthlessly formulated to win Oscars that ought to have spared a thought or two for winning over hearts.