'La La Land' review: Emma Stone shines in an otherwise dim movie musical


The climactic scene in Damien Chazelle's La La Land takes place in an audition room. Mia (Emma Stone) is asked not to deliver a prepared monologue, or read a scene — she's asked to tell a story. Any story, the casting agent says. Mia pauses. Then she gently, liltingly tells a story about her aunt who once jumped into the Seine River in Paris.

Because this is a musical, her story quickly morphs into a song. Called "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)," the tune starts at barely a whisper. "Here's to the hearts that ache," she says over sparse piano. Then, as the song builds, and she erupts into full belt — the only time that happens in the movie. It's a huge moment that requires no spectacle: just a girl, her voice and an intimate room.

That scene is the single best moment of La La Land. If only the rest of the movie looked anything like it.

The story of La La Land is remarkably simplistic: Boy meets girl, boy tries to make a living playing jazz, girl tries to make a living as an actress, neither finds much success — until they do, and they're pulled apart byf it. Yet La La Land clocks in at 128 minutes. That's not too long in the grand scheme of things, but it's quite a stretch for such a thin plot.

Chazelle fills the rest of the time with whimsy. (Boy, is there a lot of whimsy.) There's Stone and her co-star, Ryan Gosling, tap-dancing on a random Los Angeles road. There's an extended dance sequence  among the stars in Griffith Observatory. There's Gosling's Seb teaching Mia how to love jazz. (Chazelle loves jazz.)

It's a whole lot of twee, right from an opening number that features dozens of LA drivers bursting forth from their cars to dance together on a congested highway ramp. If this were well-executed, it would be really charming. Instead, thanks to some technical deficiencies (bad CGI during the Griffith Observatory scene, bad sound mixing during the highway dance), it all amounts to ineffective distraction from how little meat clings to this movie's bones.

La La Land is a musical, but strangely only offers up a few songs — seven in total, one of which is a reprise — that are more like motifs than full numbers. "Audition" is the exception, the absolute standout not just on a performance level, but in writing and composition as well. (The song, as with many, was written by Justin Hurwitz and the musical theater composing team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.)

The rest are lovely to listen to, but ultimately forgettable. "City of Stars," the song made available ahead of the film's release, is emblematic of that problem. You can probably hum the melody, but can you remember the lyrics that come after the words "city of stars"?

Despite the ho-hum score, there are moments of spectacle that are quite effective, even despite some technical failings. Gosling is also fine, if totally outacted by Stone (who will be every bit deserving of her inevitable Oscar nomination come January). But overall, La La Land gets more wrong than right. 

It's a shame, because these creators are clearly putting in the effort. Yet instead of finding the power in the small moments, Chazelle and his team opted for shallow homage to the movie musicals of the past, with a score too weak to charm you into submission.

La La Land hits theaters Dec. 9.