It begins with a joke and ends with glances. Perhaps this is the best way to describe the odd maturation of La La Land that occurs before the viewer’s very eyes, a movement from flashy kitsch to a fount of true human emotion wrapped up in dreams, that most Hollywood of ideas. Damien Chazelle and company certainly can’t be accused of insincerity, but they only seem to catch fire in the last twenty minutes, leaving the rest of the film to wallow in a strange mixing pot of playful cynicism at modern society and faint stabs at a genuinely compelling romance.
La La Land wears its influences on its sleeve, from Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly to Jacques Demy, but the movie often struggles to even come close to the kind of magic that those triumphs exuded. This comes from a myriad of reasons—for one, the songs, catchy as they are, lack a strong sense of momentum—but perhaps most importantly, he uses the traditions of those movies without truly embodying them or conveying what made them sing. Much of this feeling is due to a certain semblence of grandstanding that begins from the opening number, a grandiose, celebratory affair set over an entire traffic-jammed highway, all done in a single hyperactive shot to boot. Chazelle rarely lets up from there, extensively using the Steadicam to add a swooping flair to even the most mundane scenes in a way that feels intrusive in a strange way. The aesthetic feels misapplied, hyper-concentrated and suffocating instead of free and lithe like the classics Chazelle tries to imitate.