La La Land (PG-13)
A hopeful young actress and a musician striving to keep jazz alive fall in love in La La Land, a fairy tale of Hollywood — with singing and dancing!
Mia (Emma Stone) works at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot — and thus do cowboys, pre-revolution French aristocrats and movie stars mingle outside her workplace’s window. She yearns to be part of that world and goes on so-far-unsuccessful auditions for things such as the TV show billed as a cross between Dangerous Minds and The OC.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist who wants to save jazz, pure old-school jazz, from a slide into musical oblivion. He sits outside a one-time venue for jazz legends and fumes that it has become a purveyor of samba and tapas. He is determined to open his own jazz club, even though his gigs where he sullenly plays Christmas carols as background music at a restaurant don’t seem to be getting him closer to that goal.
The first interaction between Sebastian and Mia is when he honks and then drives around her in traffic, Mia having been so absorbed in the lines she was practicing that she didn’t see the cars finally move on the overpass on which they were both stuck. Their second interaction comes when she hears him play an original song, snuck into the middle of a Christmas carol, at the restaurant. Mia goes to tell him he’s great but he brushes past her, having just been fired for his departure from the set list.
It’s at their next meeting, when Sebastian is playing 1980s pop covers at a party, that these two actually get to talk. They are hesitant, at first, but then quickly fall into each other’s worlds — Mia learning to like (or learning to pretend she likes) jazz and Sebastian encouraging Mia not just to keep auditioning but to create her own starring vehicle, something that will showcase what she is really capable of.
Though their romance is sweet, they soon hit bumpy patches. An old buddy, Keith (John Legend), offers Sebastian a well-paying job touring with his band, a sort of jazz-rock-soul-fusion thing. It is not Sebastian’s purest ideal but it is $1,000 a week. Meanwhile, Mia develops a one-woman play that she pours all her hopes and dreams (and time and money) into.
La La Land is very cute, in both senses of the word. With its beautiful shots of the prettier parts of classic Hollywood Los Angeles locales, its girls in fluttery dresses, its sweeping love songs and its pretty and hopeful-looking stars, the movie definitely casts a dreamy spell of the glamour of old Hollywood and the charm of young love. It uses the visual language of the golden age of film — in particular the musicals — to tell a very Hollywood story about having artistic passion and big ideas and the struggle to make them work with the reality of show biz.
La La Land is also pretty cute in how much it seems to wink at what it’s doing. I feel like all of this charm — which felt a lot, at times, like Charm!™ — might have worked better if I hadn’t spent the last four months hearing how dazzled I was going to be by La La Land. I doubt any movie could stand up to that kind of build-up. All of the sweetness that can make this movie feel so lovely and sparkling also gives it a sort of “put a bird on it” determined-whimsy quality. Which is to say, this movie is very earnest about its adorableness, maybe a little too earnest for my taste.
Of the central pair, Gosling seems to have a better sense of what he’s doing, how to walk the line and mostly keep his old-man-affectation-having pianist on the romantic side of the romantic/pretentious hipster divide. Stone just goes all in, all in with her giant eyes and her looks of heartbreak. There is a puppy-ish quality to how she approaches this role and that much wide-eyed believing in this much candy-colored sunniness is just one sugar cookie too many sometimes.
There are things in La La Land that worked for me. The movie opens with a very believable traffic jam on a freeway where (less believable) the drivers popped out of cars and broke into songs about their hopes and dreams, pursued in the always bright sun of a California day. That opening is, genuinely, quite fun and charming. While I did occasionally want to turn the hose on Mia and Sebastian, there are also moments of their time together that are indeed quite romantic. Of all the ye olden stuff that has been brought back in recent years, why not more opportunities for ballroom-style couple dancing? You can’t beat strings and a couple waltzing or foxtrotting together — it is like a bouquet of roses; no matter how cliché you think it becomes, the romance of it is just undeniable. In fact, the scenes of Mia and Sebastian dancing actually pretty well illustrate the difference between cliché and classic — them dancing is classic, no matter how gimmicky it sounds when I describe it.
When I say “romantic comedy” you probably think of something with wacky misunderstandings, a crazy bridesmaid’s dress and a scene where somebody runs after somebody in an airport in defiance of all things we in the audience know to be true about TSA security. La La Land is a different kind of romantic comedy, one where the actual romance is warm and rosy and in the center and the comedy bits are actually surprising little quirky moments sprinkled throughout. It is truly a sweet and lovely movie and I applaud it for taking chances even if it’s not quite as wonderful as it wants you to think it is. B+
Rated PG-13 for some language. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, La La Land is two hours and eight minutes long and is distributed by Lionsgate.