The cussedness of La La Land is almost enough to recommend it. Damien Chazelle's sumptuous tribute to romantics trying to keep lit the fire of a guttering culture is defiantly old-fashioned in form and style. It is, among other things, a throwback to the great MGM musicals of the Gene Kelly era, just starring people who haven't devoted their lives to the talents such musicals demand.
That failure to live up to the past is, in its way, Chazelle's subject. Everyone involved in La La Land is plucking up their grit and striving to pull off the impossible, no matter the gulf between Hollywood as it was and what we've got left. His musical numbers explode with so much color and movement that to watch them is something like sticking your head into a confetti cannon. The best dancer in the movie is the camera operator, who Steadi-snakes through platoons of hoofing extras, capturing the idea of a dazzling musical more often than the performances that truly dazzle.
The second big song, about the thrill of a Hollywood party, features several different actresses swapping lines of the verses, and their voices are so indistinct you might think it's just one person singing. The soirée itself is a Gatsby lulu, wild and pleasing, shown in rapid, witty bursts, but the song itself is a cotton-candy wisp that dissolves between the crooners' mouths and the audience's ears. It's almost clever that these sequences exemplify strain more than grace, as if Chazelle is saying, after each flat note or out-of-focus face, "See how much better things used to be?"
That's La La Land all over: joyous, open-hearted filmmaking in the service of wan songs, bloodless singing and dancing that we too often can't quite see — we just have to take the movie's word that it's great.
Wanting to be great is the theme. The leads, the swimmingly toothsome Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), play talented dreamers who have come to Los Angeles in search of last-century glamour and artistry. She's a barista/actress/playwright who can't get through an audition without being interrupted, while he's a jazz pianist with vague plans to open his own club someday, one that only hosts "the purest jazz." Because Chazelle's no dope, Sebastian gets reminded that the jazz revolutionaries he reveres became great by looking forward.
The film is effervescent at first, as Mia and Sebastian discover each other. A moonlight walk is appropriately moony-swooning, with their bickering characters trying to resist dancing together, even as movie logic insists they must. Soon, they'll swan out of a screening of Rebel Without a Cause right up to Griffith Observatory, where they'll slip loose of gravity and slow-dance against a dome of stars. Stone and Gosling have always been adroit enough physical performers that you could compliment them with the old line that they're actors who move like dancers; it's also fair to say that as dancers they move like actors.
The tone here isn't all Singin' in the Rain giddiness and satire. The darker moods of It's Always Fair Weather movingly weight the film with adult loss and disappointment. Mia and Sebastian’s L.A. is muraled over with the faces of the stars of the past, but its movie palaces and jazz clubs keep closing down. Still, after getting over the initial mutual loathing that such movie romances demand, the two of them offer just the encouragement they each need.
She's going to seize the world through a one-woman show, and he's going to bank some start-up money by touring with a pop-soul combo fronted by John Legend. That move comes to feel like selling out, of course, and if your eyes roll at that I don't know what to tell you: This is a movie in which finding success as a professional touring and session musician is the source of the third-act crisis.
Still, there's much to celebrate here. Chazelle's championing of jazz is touching, and he even demands we listen to and enjoy some, which is something even documentaries about jazz musicians have lately not dared to do. The air percolates between Stone and Gosling, and while neither has a strong voice they both know how to get a plaintive ballad across. Again and again La La Land cuts to some vibrant vision, and it's often funnier about its outsize old-school ambitions than any cutting critic could be. My favorite scene is one of the simplest: Mia and Sebastian sitting down to dinner, before a glowing curtain the color of lime Jell-O, facing at last everything that's not working out in their lives. The camera settles down, and for once we're watching something that could unfold on an actual theater stage — we're watching performance.
This is 2016, a year that devours dreams like Galactus does planets, so of course their wishes can't all go the way they hope. But this is also a defiant movie musical, meaning that those wishes do flower, eventually. Complicating the eventual triumphs is the reality that the movie itself is the product of the same Hollywood that almost crushes Mia, so it's weirdly right that La La Land — like her — reaches for the stars, doesn't quite grab them all and then is still kind of OK in the end.
La La Land
Starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, Finn Wittrock, Callie Hernandez, and Sonoya Mizuno. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Rated PG-13. 128 minutes. Opens wide Friday, December 16.