Leading up to the Oscars, I’ll be revisiting and reviewing all the Best Picture nominees. I’ll assess them on their own before bringing all the nominees together and breaking down which is truly worthy of the golden statue.
Today’s review is the modern take on the old Hollywood musical, La La Land.
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend
Plot: A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles. (via IMDB)
Going into Sunday’s awards show. La La Land is certainly the favorite to win the big prize and it’s not hard to see the love for it. This is an endlessly charming movie with some truly fantastic moments. But I also don’t want to dismiss it as some light, nothing movie, because it is a wonderful, rich piece of filmmaking. Even if all the parts don’t add up to a completely satisfying film.
Damien Chazelle really wowed me with this film as a director. I had seen and greatly admired his previous film, Whiplash, but I wasn’t prepared for him to be able to handle a production like this so early in his career. From the insanely intoxicating joy of the opening musical number, Chazelle proves himself to be a real visionary in a time when that is harder to come by. The film has a real energy to it that helps draw you into the elevated reality the story takes place in. However, I think where he stumbles a bit on this picture is in his writing. This isn’t a bad script, in fact it has some really great moments of writing, but it’s uneven. After a brisk opening, the film lags significantly in the middle, with Seb’s (Ryan Gosling) adventures with the pop-jazz band being a particular bore. There are also some distinct issues with the third act, but we’ll come back to that.
That slow middle section of the film is really lifted by the amazing chemistry shared by Gosling and Emma Stone. It’s so easy to cheer for them and these two might be the most likable actors out there today. While it’s very much set up as a duet of a film, Stone is the absolute star. Despite the acclaim she’s getting for the film, I think she’s still being undervalued for her performance here. It goes far beyond the ability to sing and dance, Stone plays every moment of sadness, levity, joy, disappointment to perfection. Without her magnetic performance, the film would be a fraction of what it is. She’s cementing herself as Hollywood royalty with this one. That’s not to say Gosling is a problem, it’s just that he so effortlessly plays these roles of the cool guys who are also kind of jerks. I know there has been a good deal of talk about the lack of diversity in the movie, and though I don’t fault the movie as much as others have, I must say I see their point. There certainly aren’t enough leading roles for people of color in Hollywood and while I don’t think it’s fair to single out one particular film, I will say I actually found it distracting that Seb’s character was white. Especially for what he represents to jazz in the film, I think this was a misstep by the movie.
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Concerning the third act, I feel like the film kind of betrayed itself with how nicely things wrapped up. I know people would strongly disagree that it’s a happy ending, seeing as they don’t end up together, but they do get everything else they wanted as if it was just hanging there in front of them, waiting until they were ready to snatch it. Yes, the last 10 minutes of the film is beautiful and maybe one of my favorite movie moments of the last year, but there’s a way to do that that doesn’t go back on the film’s message on what it means to be a dreamer. What if that last audition for Mia went just like the other had, ending in disappointment? What if Seb opened his club but its future was still uncertain? Why can’t Mia having a loving family be enough happiness for her? The perfectness of their situation rang so false and disingenuous. And as beautiful as that last sequence is, it’s letdown slightly by the easiness of their journey.
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While the film left me a little empty overall after my first viewing, I do find myself thinking about it more and more. Oddly enough,I think I would return to it less for the musical moments and more for the relationship of these two characters and Stone’s wonderful performance. It’s not the complete masterpiece some have heralded as but it is also far better than the backlash will have you believe. And while I was hoping for a more complete experience, I was totally charmed by the movie and look forward to a long career from Mr. Chazelle.