The new musical La La Land, from Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of 2014’s Whiplash, is this year’s answer to The Artist. It’s a throwback to Old Hollywood, steeped in nostalgia. Musicals are so rare these days that many viewers may think of them as artifacts from a forgotten age, which they kind of are, and even when a musical does surface occasionally, it’s often of the self-conscious variety. As entertaining as La La Land is (and I’m placing it on my ten best of the year because I had such a good time at it), there’s something artificial about it, something artificial beyond the fact that it’s a musical and beyond the fact that it’s set in Hollywood. La La Land may be the cinematic equivalent to a day trip to DisneyLand: You’ve made the drive, paid the fare, and you’ve assured yourself you’re going to like it; and everything about the place—the sets, the characters, the costumes, the music, the rides—is practically screaming, “Love this, why don’tcha?” La La Land is charming to be sure, but if you think about it too much, it could fall apart.
In the opening musical number, hundreds of motorists, stuck in a traffic jam on the 10, jump out of their cars and erupt into a cheerful, upbeat song about the L.A. sunshine, and it’s clear that these are all would-be showbiz people, who’ve packed up their belongings and moved to Los Angeles, or some suburban area on the outskirts of Los Angeles, hoping to fulfill their dreams. That’s where Chazelle’s millennial roots are showing. Singin’ in the Rain focused on silent-film-era Hollywood insiders having to prove themselves anew as the movies were making sound for the first time; in La La Land, they're all outsiders, constantly preening and rehearsing and marketing and networking themselves, because you never know what studio suit might be at that party, or which audition might be the one that garners a callback, or which bit part on a television series could lead to something more. La La Land is about possibilities in a world inundated with possibilities and choices, which is the reason that the romance between its stars, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, must be tinged with uncertainty. In La La Land, your dreams represent trade-offs. Maybe it’s a depressing sign of our modern cynicism, but if the movie let them have it all, it would feel like a cheat.
The greatest thing about La La Land isn’t its musical numbers but its wistful musical tone, which is upbeat on the outside and melancholy on the inside: there’s a lovely, lachrymose theme that Ryan Gosling—who plays the struggling jazz pianist Sebastian—keeps picking away at on the piano, and it’s so entrancing and beautifully maudlin that it draws Mia (Emma Stone) into the piano bar where he’s performing, and that’s how they (sort of) meet. Indeed, La La Land experiences its emotions most fully in these songs (even when the emotions are canned, like in "Another Day of Sun"). And the songs aren’t particularly memorable or grand (although I’ve had "Another Day" stuck in my head all week); but they feel familiar and they have life in them, even if that life is distilled in a recycled and repackaged and shrewdly calculated form.
That's where the film’s artificiality works for it: this is a secondhand musical, so we know the language, and Chazelle knows that he doesn't have to spell the emotional beats of the film out for us. He can focus instead on wooing us with the music and the gorgeous visuals, and the chemistry between Gosling and Stone, actors who play off each other marvelously, who convey tenderness or uncertainty or that over-the-moon feeling you get at the beginning of a romance, with just their eyes, or in the way Gosling flirtatiously pretends not to be into Stone, or the way Stone lets him woo her, fully knowing what he's up to.
They’re lovers who don’t know they’re in love yet, and the pleasure is in watching how it will unfold. (Chazelle does keep us wondering if it will last, as dreams turn into opportunities that threaten to keep them apart.) In that big traffic sequence at the beginning, Sebastian honks at Mia because she’s distracted by her phone and isn’t paying attention to the road; she flips him off as he whizzes past her; later, in the piano bar, he breezes past her again, just as she tells him how beautiful his playing is. It's not until they meet a third time, at one of those apparently standard (and insufferable) industry parties, that sparks fly. As they’re walking to their cars in the purple-blue twilight, Gosling coos (his voice low like Dean Martin's but timid like Ricky Nelson's when they sing together in Rio Bravo) and Stone purrs in response (her voice is light and airy, but it grows). We could never fall in love with each other, they think, and the song lies, “what a waste of a wonderful night.” That’s the kind of lie we paid for, because we know it’s going to be proven false in about three seconds, when even the song happily loses its convictions.
Ryan Gosling, who’s started to grow on me as an actor (see his terrifically funny performance in The Nice Guys), has always displayed a certain indifference that to me alienates him from the audience. He embodies the blasé indifference of a Method actor, like James Dean but without Dean’s ambiguous persona, or like Brando without his electric energy. But in La La Land, Gosling’s subdued, hipsterish aversion to displaying emotion works to his advantage. It makes his eventual success seem almost inevitable, and it makes us less annoyed with his stubborn resistance to new ideas, if only because we don't take him seriously. (He’s a jazz traditionalist, wooed briefly into John Legend’s character’s band where he’s forced to play synthesizers and attend obnoxious photo shoots, and play the part of an L.A. music product.)
And there’s something flat in Gosling’s voice when he waxes on about the excitement of making your own art, without compromise. Does he even believe what he's saying? Or is it so obvious and assured for him, that he doesn't need to say it with conviction? Gosling's just as artificial as the movie. Fortunately, Emma Stone is never anything but genuine. Stone is the one we’re invested in: she’s clearly magnificently talented, but will any one of those agents or executives notice? Mia has attended one too many humiliating auditions, where rude, distracted studio execs stare blankly into their phones while she works herself into an emotionally wrenching state, showing off her acting chops to nobody. (As if anyone could ignore her.) And when Stone bats those big eyes of hers, it’s as though she’s Cupid, lassoing our hearts to the heart of this movie. We really ought to know better, but it’s like going to an amusement park: the elation and the fatigue become blurred sooner or later.