Every year, I look forward to my traditional “Oscar Death Race” where I try to see every movie and performance nominated in every category of the Academy Awards. It’s a quixotic task that I’ve never completed, but I like that it gives me a project during the cold winter months where my first instinct is to hibernate and when pop culture is still emerging from its holiday hiatus. It also usually guarantees that I’ll see some pretty stellar movies. Generally, movies that are nominated are of the best quality, though there are occasionally movies that I hate so much that I am still angry that I was forced to watch them years after the fact (War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I’m looking at you). So as much as I’ll complain when I’m trying to track down a film that is in purgatory – not in wide release but also not available yet on streaming – it’s a challenge that I revel in.
The only real downside of the Oscar Death Race is that many of the movies nominated range from slightly depressing to soul crushing, so the whole endeavor can be quite a downer after a while. I’m all for serious films, but my self-imposed immersion in Oscar nominees means I’m spending a lot of time with death, racism, Nazis, complicated relationships, tragedy and similarly uplifting plots with nary a comedy anywhere to be seen. The animated features often the best chance at reprieve, but are also films that I’m likely to have watched already earlier in the year. So by the end, it can kind of feel like slog.
But every once in a while, along comes a movie like La La Land that is so charming and joyous that I was literally sitting in the theater with a big old smile on my face. Given my love of musicals this movie was obviously going to be in my wheelhouse, but I was completely delighted by La La Land from the very opening sequence, which doesn’t even feature Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone. The film is gorgeously shot and possibly one of the only potential Oscar nominees that puts you in a better mood than you were before you were watching it. I won’t be surprised if this film is a frontrunner for both Best Picture and Best Director for the Academy Awards. This movie just made me happy.
La La Land is something of a mashup; it has a lot of elements (and pays tribute to) some old school movie musicals of the 1950s, but it is set in modern day. That last part is easy to forget, given the costuming and lushness of the film. When someone takes out a cell phone, it’s almost jarring. The plot is also something that is more at home in the movies of the past: Sebastian (Gosling) is a jazz musician purist that is working on opening up his dream jazz club that pays tributes to artists of the past, while Mia (Stone) is a struggling actress working at the coffee shop on the studio lot. They meet-cute – or actually meet-less-than-cute – in LA and fall in love, occasionally breaking into song and dance along the way. But can they find a way to balance their love and still chase their dreams?
What I was most curious about with La La Land was how Ryan Gosling would fare. Sure, he did his stint on The Mickey Mouse Club when he was a kid, but that was a long time ago. Could he hold his own in a movie that required singing and dancing? Emma Stone was something of a known quantity, since she’s been on Broadway in Cabaret, but I really had no idea what to expect from Gosling. While he’s not the world’s best singer or dancer, he does a fine job in this movie. In fact, soft shoeing Gosling may be my new favorite type of Gosling. His innate charm and his chemistry with Stone elevates what he may be lacking in other areas. This is the third time that the duo has worked together and I hope it’s not the last. I don’t see Gosling running out to cut an album or anything, but he is more than serviceable; I wouldn’t call this a Russell Crowe in Les Miserables-type situation. You can’t help but fall in love with Sebastian as Mia does.
Gosling is definitely good in this movie, but La La Land belongs to Emma Stone. She is transcendent and elevates the character of Mia beyond what is written for her. You cannot take your eyes of her and her energy and charisma help bring this movie alive. She’s so great that you don’t recognize right away that there isn’t really much character development for Mia; the viewers don’t have a fully realized image of Sebastian either, but Mia is even more flimsily written. Played by a less committed and talented actress, this flaw of La La Land would immediately be obvious. But Stone’s performance distracts you and makes way more out of Mia than we had any right to expect. La La Land isn’t a movie with a lot of depth – perhaps by design – but don’t tell that to Stone. She is so expressive and dedicated that she basically single-handedly wills Mia into a three-dimensional person rather than just an archetype. This could easily be one of her best performances to date.
Beyond the great performances, visually this is a stunning movie. The color palette of the film is gorgeous and much of the film has a dreamlike quality to it. It’s almost incomprehensible to me that director Damien Chazelle is also responsible for the film Whiplash. Tonally, these movies could not be more different and while I really liked Whiplash, you do not walk out of that film thinking that this is a guy who should attempt a musical. Chazelle and his crew are flawlessly able to capture the feeling of a vintage musical in La La Land; at one point, Sebastian and Mia visit the Griffith Observatory after watching Rebel Without a Cause and it almost feels like that sequence is simply an extension of the classic James Dean film. And not for nothing, but I would kill for Emma Stone’s wardrobe in this film (and the ability to look as great as she does).
I’d actually call La La Land musical-adjace, since I was disappointed that there wasn’t more singing and dancing. I would have been perfectly on board with them bursting into song or a two-step with more frequency. Perhaps I just go to see too many shows on Broadway and that shifted my expectations. It didn’t really hurt my enjoyment of the film, but I was having so much fun with the musical numbers that I was hungry for more.
As much as I was utterly charmed by La La Land, the film does have some flaw. As previously discussed, the characters are underwritten at best and complete archetypes at worst. There is a scene of Sebastian “mansplaining” jazz to Mia that it was a little hard to not roll your eyes at. Whenever Stone isn’t on screen, the move seems a little less exciting. I like John Legend just fine, but the entire storyline with Sebastian’s role in his band was just not as exciting to me. But overall, La La Land was just a joyous movie experience at a time when joyous movie experiences are hard to come by. It’s pure escapism and it’s done well. Since Hollywood loves nothing more than a feel-good story that pays tribute to Hollywood, I’m guessing that this film will resonate with a lot of Oscar voters. La La Land is the most fun that I’ve had at the movies in a long time; I don’t think you even have to like musicals to be enchanted by La La Land, though it certainly doesn’t hurt if you are a fan of the genre. La La Land is simply a delight.