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.
Of course, the classics are what seem to motivate the lead characters Mia (Emma Stone) and especially Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Both have no small interest in the past, and there is a clear attraction between the two based on their roots in two creative, by design nostalgic mediums: acting and jazz, respectively. Sebastian’s passion for “pure” jazz, in particular, borders on the fanatical, and an embarrassingly large amount of the film is spent on his mini-lectures to Mia about its history, current state, and his dreams to open an authentic jazz club. Mia’s dreams are much more simple, and the film becomes more interesting and involved when it follows her aspirations to both write and become a star.
La La Land proceeds in this sort of fashion for most of its runtime, both seeming to develop emotionally and never really finding a proper footing. Significantly, the proper musical numbers (with choreography and more than just the two lovers) seem to dry up after the first fifteen minutes or so. The rest is spent either on charming but altogether too fleeting songs sung together on a piano or an extravagant, patently ridiculous concert for a band led by Keith (John Legend) that Sebastian joins in order to attempt to finance his dream. The central romance is only solidified after over an hour has passed, and much of what comes after is confined to an admittedly charming montage, so the “breaking point” comes too fast to feel real. The actors do their best (Stone comes off as ultimately stronger, but both operate on high levels of charisma) but are stuck in conventions and wheel-spinning for long stretches of time.
So it comes as a surprise that the last twenty minutes nearly redeem La La Land on their own. Surprisingly soon after Mia and Sebastian break up, there is first an important audition for Mia where she sings—again, in one shot, though this time the Steadicam is thankfully eschewed for a slow track around her. The film then cuts to a few years later, and what transpires is best described as magical. Mia and Sebastian each have many of their dreams fulfilled, but the closing ten minutes propose an even deeper, more beautifully felt dream. Far removed from jokes about how Los Angeles is as sunny in winter, how 35mm film can sometimes jam, or how Cinemascope is so much wider than the average aspect ratio, La La Land suddenly becomes achingly genuine. And best of all, it comes back to reality. Chazelle and company finally realize what the movies can do, and though this only comes after an hour and a half of fumbling and posturing, it feels real all the same.