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Sunday, September 24, 2017

La La Land (reviewed by Dad)

La La Land was this year’s Oscar winner, at least for the five minutes it took for the accounting firm that is supposed to correctly put the right envelopes into the right hands to realize it had screwed up.

I’ll admit to having felt bad for those behind this picture who had to return, Zoolander like, to their seats while the folks behind Moonlight (the actual Oscar winner) got to give their thank-you speeches.  But having just watched La La Land on video with Ben and the family, the picture didn’t actually seem that Oscar worthy, or even that good.

The movie features Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as Sebastian and Mia, a pair of struggling artists doomed to come together in a meet-cute then split apart in a series of inexplicable plot turns, all set against the backdrop of Los Angeles in general, and Hollywood in particular.

Mia is a coffee shop barista on the lot of a movie studio who longs to become one of the famous film stars she serves lattes to.  Meanwhile Sebastian is the entertainment at a piano bar, at least until his uncompromising jazz soul gets him fired for not playing the musical dreck the public wants to hear (or at least his boss – J. K. Simmons – insists he play).

The two were destined to come together and, after a couple of contrived false starts, dance their way into one another’s hearts.

Did I forget to mention La La Land is a musical?

Not just a musical, but at attempted throwback to the kind of musical romances of the 30s and 40s where anything can happen – including unaided human flight – once songs begin to swell.

Two big numbers anchor the picture.  The first (which opens the film) is an inspired showstopper featuring gridlocked commuters singing and dancing atop their stuck cars (which was almost as much fun to watch as it probably was to shoot).  And the film ends with a kind of “what-might-have-been” fantasy number that, for some reason, got me thinking of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing through Toulouse Lautrec paintings at the end of An American in Paris.

It’s in between those two numbers, however, that the film falters.  Largely this is due to the decision to give the leads over to two enormously attractive actors who are just serviceable in the song and dance department.  In the films La La Land was inspired by, actors like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were not classic stunners when standing still, but became immortal beauties once their feet and bodies began to do their thing.  In contrast, Gosling and Stone seem to become smaller and less interesting whenever the script has them cut a rug.

La La Land also features a plot device that has derailed more than one film for me: the assumption that the lead characters are so talented that one can forgive their indiscretions and misbehavior (or, in this case, their limited range of emotion and inexplicable motivation).  

Trouble is, I was never convinced either character was that special an artist.  Gosling’s supposed musical talent (on display whenever he performed) was closer to the surface than Stone’s (who showed what she was truly made of in a one-woman stage play her lover inspired her to produce).   But that piano music really didn’t seem to be coming from him, and her play was kind of meh, which meant we were being asked to love, forgive and feel bad for two “great talents” who I was never convinced were particularly good.

I’m ranting, but if you’re going to try to revive the classic musical, or at least make a film about what Hollywood knows best – itself – it’s going to need more magic, more heart and more brains than La La Land which, like it’s star’s footwork, was serviceable but nothing special.

Ben replies: I hate to disagree with you, but I found La La Land to be a masterfully written, awesome looking film with a simple but sweet concept about fame.

The talent of Stone and Gosling in the acting category was palpable, and I did not find the plot to be very contrived, and rarely even found myself frustrated with the characters. Though it was not as dramatically brilliant as Moonlight, it would definitely have been Oscar material in another year (even the snobby Academy voters have to recognize a film that genuinely lets you root for it’s characters).

The one thing I didn’t like however, was something else you mentioned. They were really not that great artists. I am someone who believes in the power of the musical theatre, and a skeptic of how well it works in the cinema. Neither Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone is a good singer or dancer, at all. Their charisma might confuse you, but the scene in which she sings her ballad - it’s just not that good. There are so many great stars out there who can "triple threat" (dance, sing and act) - they litter the dressing rooms in the theatres surrounding Times Square. If you’re going to make it a musical, make sure you don’t make the musical ability of your stars an afterthought.