La La Land (***1/2) The portrait of the artist(s) looks familiar

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La La Land – 2016

Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Tom Everett Scott

There are moments in La La Land that feel absolutely lighter than air. It’s a story of hope and promise of a meaningful artistic existence weighed down by expectations of real life. Then hope and promise again. These moments are accompanied by some self-conscious takes on taking shots at fame alternating with what one compromises at time to get there. That its search for integrity that it feels familiar as freshly buttered theater popcorn doesn’t help it escape the fact that it’s presented many times before. Sometimes it’s taken in one piece at a time, and other times handfuls shoved obnoxiously down the gullet.

Mia Dolan (Stone) is a hardworking (Small Town Girl…) young actress, slaving away at the Studio Lot version of Starbucks. She’s down on her luck and just looking for a break. She may not get it for a while.

Sebastian Wilder (Gosling) is a passionate piano player (Just a City Boy…) who has a hard time compromising his value of artistic integrity to cash in on the fact that he is just a damn good musician who could be in demand if he allowed himself to be.

The Small Town Girl and City Boy’s orbits revolve around one another for a while, until they gradually realize that they are the exact element needed for each other’s version of Don’t Stop Believin’. The romance goes blossoms and they battle the odds and their own demons on their paths to accomplishing their dreams.

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The story is dotted with several average musical numbers and a three spectacular ones (A Lovely Night, Planetarium, Audition) and an ending as subdued as it is bittersweet. The story that threads all of the numbers together is a good, if familiar take on what it’s like to try to put on a show of what’s really matters to one’s soul. Strangely, the thing I thought of most while watching the film is the eternal struggle of…The Muppets.

This is not to say that the film is not successful. I am sure it will do well in awards season and that would be no more insulting than some of the drivel that has raked in the awards in recent years. The story is an honest, if derivative take on the struggling artist. I have no doubt that it will be an inspiration for many future artists.

The leads, Stone and Gosling, have a very easy chemistry at this point. They gel as effectively as any two I have seen in recent years. One hopes this will give both a boost in their careers to the point where even my Mom knows who they are.

Gosling, in particular, is finding his space in the cinematic lexicon. After a career that alternated chick bait (The Notebook, Crazy, Stupid, Love, A Place Beyond The Plains) with guy bait (DriveGangster Squad) and some nice critic bait (Blue Valentine, The Big Short, Half Nelson). This year’s The Nice Guys placed him firmly in my sights, and his easy performance here has kept him there. He has the charisma and easy charm to succeed without appearing to be trying. He could be the biggest name we remember from this era if he keeps this upward trend.

Stone is tougher to figure. She’s so obviously multi-talented. It would be lovely to see her avoid any sort of search for the self-serious relevance in a career that is wrought with the likes Natalie Portman’s, Halley Berry’s, Julia Roberts’s and Scarlett Johansson’s. She’s genuinely entertaining and refreshing in the least pretentious way.

Chazelle is on quite a trajectory. Last year’s Whiplash was a revelation and this film is an exceptional, if unoriginal follow up. There are few missteps and the conclusion has such an integrity with the rest of his story, it rises above the rest of its common story components. I place him somewhere behind Fincher, Mira Nair and Jeff Nichols on my list of favorite directors, but he’s within shooting distance.

If you like the elements of a musical, the artist staying true to their dream and romance, you will like and possibly love this film. I am firmly in the former category.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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