La La Land is such an effervescently charming thing, I imagine a lot of people will enjoy it, as I did. For me, the movie fills the void that has been left in recent years as the mainstream romantic comedy all but disappeared from movie screens -- it's got a pair of very likable stars, winning laughs, and a lot of heart. I don't think the material deals with any astounding subject matter, and there are certain plot elements that aren't what you'd call wildly original. But if we're going to lament that appealing entertainments have practically vanished from cinemas -- a tradition going back to the MGM musicals referenced in this film, but continuing into the '90's with such crowd-pleasers as Sleepless in Seattle and Jerry Maguire -- I think we have to appreciate a movie like La La Land for what it does well.
The movie clearly stakes its claim on wanting to wow with the opening sequence, a musical number set in an LA traffic jam, filmed in a one-take wonder that, from a technical/choreographic standpoint, is dazzlingly ambitious. At the end of this sequence, we meet our two heroes, struggling actress Emma Stone, and struggling jazz pianist Ryan Gosling. The bulk of the movie involves the two characters crossing paths over and over, until they become friends, then lovers, singing and dancing through it all. Both actors are quite strong, with seemingly effortless chemistry, graceful physicality in their dance numbers, and a surprising amount of emotional heft once their relationship turns rocky. There is one area where I think both performers do sadly fall short, and that's vocally -- much to my chagrin, movie musicals still haven't figured out that great singing voices really should be a requirement in this genre.
The film's milieu is one I'm pretty intimately familiar with -- a world of casting rooms, smoky jazz clubs, black box theaters, and studio lots -- and I imagine many Angelenos, particularly those in entertainment, will find the movie captures quite well the feeling of being a foot away from fame at all times, even if that foot can sometimes feel like miles. (I do think some of the movie's jokes about L.A. culture can be a bit broad, though -- some moments feel pretty clearly designed to just flatter audiences in on the joke.) I liked that the movie's second half took a more dramatic turn, exploring the kinds of questions a lot of artists ask themselves -- when should you recognize that your dream isn't going to happen? Should you give up? And when you do "succeed," is it ungrateful to wish that your success were of a different kind? How do people with different dreams, even different tastes, juggle that with a relationship? And yet, I must acknowledge that the movie's answers to these questions didn't feel terribly unique -- I wondered what a filmmaker with more life experience (and experience that didn't include such stratospheric success so young) might have come up with for this section.
We often talk on here about movies that succeed for much of their running time and then whiff the landing. Well, La La Land certainly has no problem sticking its dismount. The finale is the most ambitious and imaginative sequence in the film, the kind that dazzles with what people used to call the magic of movies, while maintaining a hugely bittersweet edge to it. It's rare that a movie leaves its viewers on such a high without feeling like unrealistic wish fulfillment, but La La Land manages this balance pretty perfectly in its final moments.
Sets and costumes are dazzling, and in very creative ways -- the movie has such a clever color palette you find yourself marveling at small details, like the arrangement of trash cans, or the placement of potted plants, that create an overall cotton candy-textured hue while still feeling of a piece with modern, urban Los Angeles. (The film's visual design is where the Jacques Demy influence really shines through). And the music is full of ear worms, with an underscore that's ravishing in its un-ironic emotion, and two songs -- "City of Stars" and "Audition" that 100% merit nominations in that often woe-begone category. The first is essentially the film's main theme, which runs throughout the movie, sung by Gosling in bits and pieces at certain points, and then it gets its best showcase as a love duet for both leads. The latter is Stone's Oscar clip -- the showcase eleven o'clock number filmed entirely in close-up that the actress knocks out of the park emotionally.
On the whole, for a movie that had been advertised as a confection, I found myself moved by its strains of melancholy more than I expected, all while being very pleasantly entertained. It's not what you'd call a bracing piece of work, but not every movie needs to be Room, and given all that's going on in the world right now, I'm certainly happy that La La Land's optimism is out there in it.