They worship everything, but respect nothing.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is less an original movie than a nostalgic remembering of the original Star Wars. J.J. Abrams gender flips the leads, but borrows so many story beats and visual tics that the movie can’t stand alone. Abrams used the fond memory of a film to create a drug directly aimed at fans of the series disillusioned by the Prequel Trilogy. The Force Awakens is broad enough to appeal to a wide audience, but is engineered for a the Star Wars audience who pore over the movies in hopes of finding threads and desiring a spirit of the original.

In a similar fashion, La La Land is less a movie than a nostalgic remembering of a genre, but without a basic understanding of what made the original musicals great. La La Land is supposed to be a love letter to the Hollywood of yore, a movie filled with easy references to half-remembered half-idealized classics. Director Damien Chazelle includes deep cuts to please the self-satisfied film scholar but enough easy references to please casual viewers. It’s a nostalgia drug designed to be inserted straight into the veins of film critics and people needing something to strive for. La La Land is ultimately propaganda for the Hollywood version of the American Dream.

The opening number promises a different movie than one it ultimately delivers, and one I’d rather have watched. Four lanes of a freeway flyover are in gridlock as the camera swoops dreamily over their honking horns. Finally, a driver gets out of her car and starts a singing and dancing chain reaction about “Another Day of Sun” in Los Angeles…before the title card wittily informs us “Winter.” This number plays the line between sincere musical and dry commentary on Los Angeles, complete with gorgeous choreography as professional dancers jump onto the hoods of cars. All this is done in one continuous take as the camera glides up and down the parking lot on the freeway. It’s a classic musical show opener that should have set the tone for the whole movie. Unfortunately, this will be the last time you see talented dancing on screen.

Seb (Ryan Gosling) is stuck behind Mia (Emma Stone) in this overjoyed traffic jam. He’s trying to find the right place on his jazz cassette, while she’s so busy practicing her lines for her audition that she forgets to move. He angrily honks his horn as she holds up traffic, to which she flips him the bird. So begins our love story. If only it remained so tongue-in-cheek.

Over the course of the next year, Seb and Mia struggle to find love while achieving their dreams. Struggling jazz musician Seb is bitter that a classic jazz nightclub is being turned into a Samba and Tapas restaurant, so he sells himself short by playing holiday basics in a restaurant or playing in an 80s cover band. He holds his ideals about jazz so tightly that he can’t find new ways to express himself, turning a once radical art form into a time capsule of formalities. Struggling actress Mia survives as a barista because she can’t land a role anywhere because every audition is interrupted by phone calls or somebody wanting a sandwich. Her manager is stifling her dreams of becoming a real actress by releasing her schedule mere days before she has to work (fun fact: Seattle just passed a law requiring a 14-day advanced notice for all variable work schedules).

Outside of the sly opening number, La La Land is an earnest and straightforward romantic musical swooning about achieving dreams in the face of love. Reality and compromise are the primary antagonists in this movie as they two struggle to pay rent while they assemble the building blocks for their oncoming success. Damien Chazelle uses a lush palette to heighen the artificiality of the story, frequently relying on classical color blocking to dutifully recreate the feeling of MGM’s 1950s Technicolor musicals. But, there’s one big flaw: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not great dancers.

There were two elements of those big 1950s musicals: the skill of the camera moving around big set pieces, and watching talented dancers do their thing. Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire: all of them were almost supernaturally light on their feet. Gene Kelly was an animalistic ribbon in the way he he glided across the stage. Fred Astaire was closer to a sentient oil-based fluid effortlessly bounding around with his whole body, and they way he matched with Ginger Rogers…they were melted butter. Gosling and Stone, for all their on screen chemistry, have no such talent. Their dance numbers are reduced in both size and scope from the big studio stagings of yore. The songs that do feature choreography have all the skill of the numbers in Dancing With The Stars (choreographer Mandy Moore works with DWTS), that is to say they’re toned down for non-professionals.

The artificiality of the movie might actually be the point. Seb takes Mia to see Rebel Without A Cause at the Rialto theater, a theater that has long been gutted to make room for retail space (currently the space is an Urban Outfitters). Many of the posters within the movie are made-for-this-movie fakes rather than classic posters from the archives. It’s a Lynchian surreality without exposing any of the darker undertones that run through Hollywood. Earlier this year, The Coens released Hail, Caesar!, a pisstake on the Hollywood studio system that made a joke of exposing all of the classic Hollywood scandals interspersed with inept recreations of classic genre films. La La Land is the inverse of that. It’s feel-good pro-Hollywood propaganda using a shiny facsimile of the 1950s musical to gloss over the real problems with the Hollywood success story.

Damien Chazelle is truly in love with this piece of joyous nostalgia. The acting is great; Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling maintain their casually smoldering chemistry. The cinematography and use of color is a spectacular feast one could write books on. The production design is almost as impeccable as a Wes Anderson film. From the costumes to the set, it’s a solid film…but all the parts don’t add up to a satisfying whole.

La La Land is actually the inverse of his previous film, Whiplash. In Whiplash, Chazelle darkly wondered whether hard work and unhealthy obsession could turn into talent and success. In La La Land, he takes joy in the ideas of hard work and unhealthy obsession. Where Whiplash was a gritty, intense, realistic film about success in New York, La La Land is a silky, romantic dreamscape of Hollywood.

After the ugly, brutal, death-filled year we just had, maybe a light and frothy technicolor movie about how great things used to be is what we need to calm our nerves…because movies like these act as a calming agent on our collective nerves. Maybe that’s why I’m reacting so negatively to it. La La Land is so genuine about its artifice, it makes a great approximation of the real thing. It contains in-movie self-criticism, but is so half-hearted with it that it could be dismissed out of hand. La La Land is a charming scoop of marshmallow fluff that can give you diabetes if you’re not careful. Like marshmallow fluff, many people are going to love it when they first eat it – it’s engineered to hit all your pleasure chemicals – but, there’s also not much there beyond the obvious technical feat of being tasty marshmallow fluff.