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Sunday, January 8, 2017

"La La Land": Fun and Sweet but no Masterpiece

"La La Land" is a fun, sweet movie about two young artists, their attempt to establish their careers, and their love affair. It's enjoyable but not the masterpiece reviews insist it is.

Mia (Emma Stone) is a barrista and an aspiring actress. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist. They meet during a traffic jam, get together at a party, and go through the ups and downs of young people who are in love and who are also chasing artistic success.

"La La Land" is a musical. People sing and dance. That's fun. Neither Stone nor Gosling is a professional singer or dancer, so the singing and dancing are mediocre.

Mia and Sebastian go for a walk at night. Their walk is cinematically reminiscent of a walk that Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse take in the 1953 movie musical, "Band Wagon" – to the tune of "Dancing in the Dark."

Just like Fred and Cyd, Mia and Seb begin their nighttime walk as bickering enemies, but during the dance they warm up to each other. They dance under trees and streetlights. The difference is that Gosling and Stone can't begin to match the magic that professional dancers like Astaire and Charisse conjure in their dance number. Gosling's voice is barely there.

In another scene, Stone sings what might have been a show-stopping number, a song about her free-spirited aunt who lived in Paris and went swimming in the River Seine. During this song, Stone wears a non-descript, baggy sweater and she barely moves. Stone is very compelling as an actress. As a singer, especially during this number, she falls flat.

Damien Chazelle's direction doesn't highlight the dance numbers as it might. The opening scene depicts an LA traffic jam. Passengers emerge from their cars and dance on the highway. They sing a lyric-dense song; you can't hear them over the music in order to make out the words. It's frustrating. Their movements are not flattered by Chazelle's camera.

Even so, I very much enjoyed "La La Land." Its strengths would have been evident whether anyone had been singing or not. "La La Land" brings home how hard it is for struggling artists to nurture healthy relationships. Mia and Sebastian live in poverty. At one point he looks at a water stain on the ceiling and despairs. They are crushed when their best efforts meet with failure. They are tempted to sell out. Their careers demand that they not be present for each other for months at a time. Mia and Sebastian let each other down.

"La La Land" drags after a bit. Stone and Gosling are virtually the only characters in the film. Their key interactions are repeated. "La La Land" redeemed itself, for me, in a final, fantasy sequence that was incredibly poignant and true and that was unlike anything else I'd ever seen in any other film. I'd recommend seeing "La La Land" for that sequence alone.

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