By Anthony Miglieri
Reader, I preface this review with a warning: The following statement, in its brazen flouting of common opinion, will likely send many of you into shock. The Reel Deal organization is prepared to accept no responsibility for any mental or bodily harm you may experience, so I implore you not to proceed lightly. Here goes: La La Land is really good.
Bold words, I know. On second thought, my previous warning should have probably been more along the lines of: beware, this review will be boring. Yes, I am adding my own voice to the already massive chorus of praise being heaped upon Damien Chazelle’s new film. Although it is far from perfect, La La Land is worthy of most of the elation everyone has been leaving the theater with.
The plot of this movie is can be deceptively summed up in one sentence: a jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles. This is about as bare bones as movie stories get, but starting at the ground level is essential to what makes La La Land special. I am in no way a musical connoisseur, but I do know that the genre has mostly fallen to the wayside in recent years, and Chazelle’s new film gracefully tackles what is largely a re-education for the movie watching public. The basic plot is an excellent way of easing filmgoers back into the world of musicals, a world that Chazelle obviously has a deep affinity for.
Aside from this undoubtedly great achievement, the simple story also enables La La Land to reach a level beyond that of the standard musical; this is where it really gets interesting. With this well-worn template established, Chazelle criticizes the essence of musicals and Hollywood itself, especially its glitzy allure and its misleading promise of happy endings. Composer Justin Hurwitz and songwriting duo Pasek and Paul are perfect co-conspirators for the director, as their jazzy songs help to poke at the shiny, romantic veneer of the “city of stars.” That the movie and music alike possess wise cynicism and manage to be completely delightful at the same time just doesn’t seem fair. The extended epilogue of the movie especially conveys the sense of bittersweet regret in life that movies of this kind don’t address. In my opinion, it is a particular, just perfect sequence near the film’s close that truly lifts La La Land above its contemporaries.
So plentiful are the pleasures of La La Land that I haven’t even mentioned the performances, which, as the already cascading awards suggest, are great. In particular, Emma Stone, as the alternately starry eyed and weary young actress Mia, is a revelation. It seems as if Stone could power a small city with her skill and charisma, which extends through her dynamic acting, dancing, and singing. Then there is Ryan Gosling as the struggling pianist and jazz nut Sebastian. Although his singing and overall believability are not quite as up to Stone’s level, he is very good and is a nice balance to her. And of course, in true Gosling fashion, he is able to ignite the charm at the drop of a hat. Matching the allure of the actors is the look of the movie: the cinematography, direction, set design, costume design, and especially the lighting, mesh into a energetic, eye-popping, and fluid visual wonder.
Unlike some other die hard fans of La La Land, however, I do have a few reservations with it, which were made clearer after a second viewing. As I mentioned before, this movie doesn’t have the most complex plot, and for me, being able to anticipate certain beats did detract from the movie’s punch the second time. Specifically, there are a handful of critical moments (that I will not spoil) that have the air let out of them by overly simple resolutions. There is also a subplot involving Gosling’s character and a former friend, played by John Legend, that is a bit underdeveloped and off-putting. Also, as I briefly cited earlier, there is a sequence near the very end of the film that is absolutely brilliant; it is about 8 minutes and marks a departure from the style of the rest of the feature. I wouldn’t dare spoil any of what Chazelle and his crew are up to with this scene, but its impressionistic scheme and emotional power are so perfectly honed that it manages to outshine the rest of the movie. It seems odd to criticize a certain scene for being too amazing, but in this case, I feel that the movie’s balance is noticeably thrown off.
Despite my gripes that keep me from seeing La La Land as utter perfection (as many others do), Damien Chazelle’s film manages to be both a passionate homage and an intelligent and gutsy sendup of the musical tradition of Hollywood. Many speculators smell an Oscar sweep for La La Land, and I don’t blame them; this is the type of Hollywood nostalgia that the Academy likes to reward in gold-plated britannium. Even though I feel there are other candidates perhaps more deserving, if I see this film – which critiques the very culture that the Academy is built upon – win the top statue, I certainly won’t complain.