LA LA LAND (Damien Chazelle, 2016)
MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Wednesday, January 4, $15, 7:30
Series runs through January 12
Tickets: $12, may be applied to museum admission within thirty days
Call it Blah Blah Bland. La La Land, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Whiplash, is an overwrought tribute to the old-fashioned romance musical, a genre homage that lacks the energy and chemistry of the films that it directly evokes, including the Hollywood classics Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, and An American in Paris, Jacques Demy’s French favorites The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, and Chazelle’s own 2009 black-and-white indie musical, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. (Look for a billboard of Chazelle’s debut that passes by quickly.) In La La Land, Emma Stone stars as Mia Dolan, a studio barista with dreams of becoming a successful actress; Ryan Gosling is Sebastian Wilder, a down-on-his-luck jazz pianist with dreams of opening his own club. The film opens with a fabulous number on a Hollywood freeway, as hundreds of men and women in a traffic jam get out of their cars and sing and dance, announcing that it’s “Another Day of Sun.” It’s also the first of several awkward, accidental meet-cute scenes between Mia and Sebastian before they get involved with each other. Chazelle, a drummer, knows the source material well, as do composer (and Chazelle’s Harvard classmate) Justin Hurwitz, lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, A Christmas Story, the Musical), and So You Think You Can Dance choreographer Mandy Moore. Mary Zophres’s costumes are thoroughly delightful, as is David Wasco’s production design, bathing the film in bright, eye-catching primary colors. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, The Hundred-Foot Journey) shoots the film in throwback CinemaScope, with the musical numbers done in a single take.
La La Land also features Rosemarie DeWitt as Sebastian’s kind but pushy sister, J. K. Simmons as a restaurant manager who hires Sebastian to play Christmas songs on piano, Finn Wittrock as Mia’s handsome but boring boyfriend, and John Legend as a jazzman who offers Sebastian the chance to play in a real band. Chazelle overmanipulates some alternate-universe twists, a fantasy scene in the Griffith Observatory from Rebel without a Cause makes no sense, and Stone and Gosling are not exactly Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Of the two — who’ve previously costarred in Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad — Stone avails herself significantly better; it’s impossible to stop gazing at her big, puppy-dog eyes, which continually dominate the screen. La La Land has its share of lovely, clever moments, but it never quite comes together, like a jazz song filled with great improvised solos but just doesn’t know how to end. La La Land is screening January 4 at 7:30 in MoMA’s annual series “The Contenders,” which consists of films the institution believes will stand the test of time; the festival continues through January 12 with such other 2016 works as J. Clay Tweel’s Gleason, Amir Naderi’s Monte, and James Schamus’s Indignation, followed by a discussion with Schamus. (La La Land is also currently playing at AMC Empire 25, Regal Union Square Stadium 14, Cinépolis Chelsea, and AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13.)