Ahh, La La Land. That storied saga steeped in both praise and controversy. What goes up (and gets fourteen Academy Award nominations) must come down. No piece of art is above criticism. But after the dust settles from that inevitable backlash, new audiences must stay open-minded enough to watch the thing and simply decide for themselves.
La La Land is utterly lovely. Whether or not it deserved its bevy of awards is something only those who saw each nominated film in each category can speak to. But without taking any of its reception into account, this is a movie any movie-lover should see. Extra points if you know your Hollywood classics, as La La Land is part homage to Singin’ In The Rain, A Star is Born, Funny Face, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and plenty of other golden age musicals and non-musicals alike.
We follow Mia, a young actress hustling for her big break in Hollywood, and a passionate jazz musician named Sebastian (apparently…he’s never really referred to by name.) Both artists are struggling to be true to themselves in a town – Los Angeles, affectionately called ‘la la land’ by many locals – that values expediency above all else. And though they have much in common, they also have quite a bit to teach each other about holding steadfast to their biggest dreams. Along this most colorful and exciting of journeys, we’re treated to both sweeping, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, dance numbers and plenty of quiet, everyday moments. The passage of time in Mia and Sebastian’s romance is something director Damien Chazelle plays with, often showing us events out of order, but always reeling us back to relative reality with cards indicating “Winter,” “Spring,” etc. Similar to 500 Days of Summer in style, but far superior in substance, La La Land is full to the brim with plot and performance. And just when we think each end is ready to be tied up in a beautiful bow, Chazelle reminds us who’s boss with one, final crescendo of heartbreaking movie magic.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are completely believable as the romantic leads. It would have been easy for Gosling to rely upon his oodles of charm. It would have been easy for Stone to become yet another manic pixie dream girl here to show us how to truly live life to the fullest. But instead, the characters they create with Chazelle’s direction are equal protagonists. Yes, Mia and Seb both have an innate courage which their peers lack, but neither has it all figured out. They are a true team, supporting and encouraging each other to not forget why they came to la la land in the first place.
Gosling excels where plenty of leading men do not: in being vulnerable. For such an understated performer, he never allows the stakes to sink too low. As fantastic as Emma Stone’s lauded performance is, his is just as strong…if not more so. Stone is wonderful but sometimes seems to be holding back, as it she’s worried she’ll be too much. Not necessarily an unfounded fear, considering how subtle Gosling tends to be. But some of her best moments are those when she dives in headfirst. She’s hilarious in the pool party scene, glorious in her teary audition and has possibly the most giant, expressive eyes ever seen on the big screen. Chazelle is absolutely right to have directed his actors to play things as minimal and real-life as possible, but I would have loved to see just a bit more of Emma’s quirky humanity.
La La Land is a rollercoaster for the senses. The costuming and lighting feature a unique palette of primary colors, the music is memorable and the pacing is exciting. But don’t allow those things to distract you from the solid storytelling taking place. A fairly whimsical love story like La La Land might seem like a step backwards for writer/director Chazelle after thrillers Whiplash and 10 Cloverfield Lane, but only if you believe that whimsy cannot coexist with truth. I believe it can and does. And besides, La La Land isn’t your typical love story. After coming home from the theatre, still in a bit of a movie haze, my boyfriend mentioned that it seemed less like a romance between two people and more like a romance between people and their dreams. That’s the story being told here and you don’t want to miss it.
La La Land is rated PG-13 for language. Coming soon to RedBox.