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'La La Land' is strong, even moving, but not the year's masterpiece

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling find love and footwork in a retro musical that's a touch too calculated and basic.
La La Land

Ryan Gosling play struggling Los Angelinos who love, sing and dance in Damien ChazDale Robinette

‘La La Land’
Director:
Damien Chazelle
Stars: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

The greatest moment in “La La Land” isn’t the elegant, long-take pas de deux between stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, seen prancing in front of the Los Angeles skyline as twilight looms. Nor is it the zero-gravity slinking they do inside the dome of the Griffith Observatory planetarium. It’s the sight of Ryan Gosling with a keytar. It’s a throwaway bit, onscreen for maybe 10 seconds, as he grumpily tickles ivories in an ’80s cover band. But it shows the weirder, more personable movie “La La Land” could have been, instead of the movie it really is: perfectly acceptable, sometimes overly strained, generally way too basic — and, yes, periodically delightful, even at times devastating.

It’s been some time since the musical’s been back, though it’s never had the force it once did. Today’s audiences, it’s presumed, still need to be held by the hand, gently tiptoed into a genre that’s as alien to them as the Western. And so “La La Land” is a musical for people who don’t watch musicals. It wows you more than it charms you, though it'd like to think it's doing both. The opener drops in on a classic L.A. traffic jam that explodes into a group number. People caterwaul over car hoods. A truck’s rear door opens up, revealing a band already tooting along. The camera swoops and swerves among the aggressively choreographed throngs. Hell, the shoot even had to shut down an L.A. expressway for a day, and for a musical.

In other words, it’s a technical marvel. But something about it rings hollow. Maybe it’s the song itself, which is all about how, if you haven’t heard, it’s always sunny in Los Angeles — this before the word “Winter” is plopped over an image of a blindingly bright, warm Southern California day. It’s all a little easy. Ditto the story. Stone’s Mia and Gosling’s Sebastian are classic struggling Los Angelinos. She wants to be a successful actress; he wants to be a successful jazz pianist. Both dreams are up against very different, horrific odds. Mia’s one of tens of thousands after the same goal. Meanwhile, Sebastian’s competes with no one, because jazz, at least the classic hard bop he wants to play, is even more dead than the Western.

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At first Mia and Sebastian bicker, but we know they’ll fall in love. Soon as they do, the end can't be far off. Granted, this plot isn’t just a rehash of too many classic musicals; it’s the rare one that goes downer. Director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) borrows equally from fizzy Hollywood fare and the looser, more melancholic ones Jacques Demy made in France in the ’60s, like “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort.”

Demy was reworking the musical from within, creating his brand new thing out of old parts. Chazelle is merely a nostalgist, a copycat. At worst, he's self-righteous, shaking his fist at the kids these days who don't know a thing about old forms of entertainment. He's not just talking about musicals;at one point Sebastian does some epic mansplaining to his gal pal, going off on what the jazz is all about.Chazelle's love is sincere, but heapproaches the genre like a detached scientist or a fresh-faced chef following an old recipe to the teaspoon. And so “La La Land” feels mechanical, rarely busting loose. For the movie musical newb, it’s probably astonishing; to anyone for whom the genre is a steady part of their filmic diet, it’s a not bad first start.

Still, it can’t be stressed how impeccably made it is. Indeed, “La La Land” might have been a mere technical exercise if Chazelle hadn’t cast two wildly personable leads. Gosling’s stuck in brooding movie star mode. (In a just world, Gosling’s Oscar talk wouldn't be about "La La Land" but about “The Nice Guys,” in which he does pratfalls and leftfield Lou Costello nods and generally acts like a weirdo, which is the superior Gosling anyway.) But Stone is all too real. She's moving as Mia endures humiliating auditions and discouraging Starbucks customers. As her dreams crumble, she has to face cold, pitiless reality: Maybe she isn’t someone who makes it; maybe she doesn’t contain greatness within her. Stone is one of our most boisterous, giddy performers, and "La La Land" forces us to watch her deflate, the air drained out of her like a big balloon.

But Chazelle doesn’t want “La La Land” to be a total downer. Where “Whiplash” entertained the notion that sometimes only a sociopath can achieve artistic transcendence, “La La Land” is really only a movie — a charming, fleet-footed, finely acted, sometimes overly calculated movie, designed to deliver merriment followed by heartache. But then there’s that ending — a stiff drink of a closer that combines the epic ballet from “An American in Paris” with the bittersweet finale of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," yet still does it its own way. It’s here that a retro trinket, steeped in nostalgia, finally finds its voice. Chazelle might as well turn right around and make another musical, while the feeling’s still fresh within him.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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