Published on December 7th, 2016 | by Clint Davis
La La Land: 2016’s most overrated movie
The praise I’m hearing and reading about director Damien Chazelle’s new movie La La Land is making me worry that this year’s award season is going to be a repeat of 2011’s.
You remember the 2011 award season, right? Daring, experimental and well-crafted movies like A Separation, The Tree of Life, Hugo and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy were in the running for the big prizes, but come early 2012, voters at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars bit on the nostalgia hook of The Artist.
You remember The Artist, right? A harmless, if pretentious film that won best picture honors at both the big shows and took home five Oscars as the most-awarded movie of the year. It was a silent, French, black-and-white picture presented in 4:3 aspect ratio that paid tribute to old cinema. Like, really old cinema. And critics went nuts for it. But when you look back at the great movies of the past 10 years, does The Artist even crack the top 100? Probably not.
I have a feeling we will see history repeat itself in early 2017. But this year’s nostalgic favorite is La La Land.
I went to a screening of La La Land last week and I was excited about it when I first sat down. As a rising writer-director, Chazelle made me an instant fan with his 2014 debut Whiplash. I ranked it in my year-end list of 2014’s 10 best movies. But as La La Land played out, I was taken in by its colors and vibrancy but disappointed by how little emotion the movie made me feel.
Whiplash was magnetic in its energy and in the violent way it presented music. It made my heart race and had me hanging on every moment thanks to the flawless performances from its lead actors Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons (the latter won an Oscar). But La La Land left me flat from start to finish. This is the last I will compare Chazelle’s two movies because they couldn’t be more different in style and execution and comparing them is unfair.
La La Land presents itself as a love letter to both 1950s/60s Hollywood and jazz music. I’m a great lover of each of those things and perhaps as a result, this film just made me want to listen to Miles Davis and turn on Rebel Without a Cause rather than to continue watching as Ryan Gosling‘s character Sebastian incessantly talks about both of those things. I appreciated the sentiment but honestly it just felt like Chazelle was trying to impress the audience with his old-fashioned tastes and in a way, pass judgement on people who don’t care for those things.
But my problem with La La Land doesn’t lie with Chazelle. I just think this movie tries to do too many things while not really pulling any of them off. It just all felt very average to me. It wants to be a musical — and all its trailers will tease it as 2016’s answer to West Side Story — but it’s got so few musical numbers that it hardly counts as a musical at all.
There are seven original songs performed during La La Land‘s 128-minute runtime. To put that number into perspective, West Side Story had 19 musical and/or dance numbers, Chicago had 16 numbers, My Fair Lady had 20 numbers. Even South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut had 12 musical numbers! I’m not suggesting there be a minimum threshold of musical performances needed to be officially deemed a “Musical,” but as I watched La La Land, I just felt the gaps between songs were Grand Canyonesque. The movie opens with a handful of them right in a row and then there are no numbers for about an hour and then there are a few more. It’s oddly paced.
Also, Gosling and Emma Stone — co-starring together for the third time, which makes them our generation’s Bogart & Bacall — are just not great singers or dancers, although the shots of Gosling playing piano were impressive. Maybe it was the songs, which are all forgettable, but neither Gosling nor Stone impressed me with any of their numbers. When I’ve gone to see any musical film, I’m always walking out of the theater humming or singing at least one of the tunes but an hour after we’d left La La Land, my wife and I couldn’t recall a melody or lyric from any of its numbers.
I don’t want to come off like I consider La La Land a miserable failure of a film. Its production design was very solid and some of the long-shot takes during the musical numbers were downright impressive, showing more directorial finesse from Chazelle. But neither of the lead characters were very charming and I didn’t feel like the stakes were very high as they pursued their big dreams. I honestly just didn’t care whether or not they succeeded.
So far, La La Land has been a darling of the critical awards circuit. It won best picture honors from critical circles in New York and Washington D.C., while finishing second in Los Angeles. With fantastic, bold films like Moonlight, Hell or High Water, The Jungle Book and plenty others hitting theaters in 2016, I hope when the Globes and Oscars roll around the voters won’t go with another safe, nostalgic choice like they did five years ago.
La La Land currently holds a 96-percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Don’t believe the hype.