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La La Land glides by on superficial charm

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In this modern take on classic Hollywood musicals, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as a couple of twenty—somethings trying to make it in Los Angeles. Mia is an aspiring actress who works at a coffee shop on a movie lot, while Sebastian plays jazz and hopes to open his own club someday. They keep running into each other in not one but many meet-cutes, until finally the chemistry sticks and we commence to watch these people sing and dance their way through a relationship.

Damien Chazelle wrote and directed the picture. It's his first since 2014's splendid Whiplash, about a sadistic drum leader and his driven student. Chazelle also wrote last year's audience favorite 10 Cloverfield Lane, which I vehemently hated, but in retrospect was perhaps a little too hard on.

La La Land begins with a spirited musical number performed by a chorus of strangers deadlocked on the interstate in L.A. The people get out of their cars to sing and dance together in a fanciful way. Wouldn't it be great (the film invites us to imagine) if life were really like this? What if we were together and dancing instead of sad and separate? That the song isn't very good or even memorable takes a backseat to the sheer audacity of it.

La La Land follows basic Hollywood musical logic. The numbers aren't meant to be taken as literal events taking place within the scene, but rather they represent the characters' emotional content. Sebastian and Mia take an evening walk in the Hollywood Hills with an idyllic view of the city as their backdrop. It's their third chance meeting, and third time's a charm, so we know their flirtatious synchronized tap dance signals the unfurling of their romance.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star in La La Land.
  • Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star in La La Land.

The film fades in and out of fantasy and reality in a way I suspect may be more convenient than deliberate. Mia looks at her cracked iPhone to see a reminder for her audition, but later, when there's a misunderstanding and she's late to her date with Sebastian, it's as if cellphones don't exist. And it bugs me that we see Gosling performing his jazz several times, but when it comes to Mia's one-woman show, the movie thinks just hearing about its existence is enough.

Other curmudgeons have pointed out that Stone and Gosling are not particularly talented singers and dancers, and it's true. I was surprised by how little the film asks of them in the musical numbers. This is a complaint commonly registered by theater nerds about film adaptations of beloved shows. Why is Anne Hathaway playing Fantine in Les Miserables when so many great stage actresses could sing it better, or Zellweger and Zeta-Jones in Chicago, and on and on. (It may be worth noting that all of the aforementioned performers are about 10 times better at singing than Stone and Gosling.)

Pipes aside, I personally prefer the Emma Stone from Superbad and that early Doritos commercial, when she still had some meat on her bones and I was the only one who noticed her talent. And I want my Ryan Gosling less lovestruck, a la The Notebook, and more emotionally distant and moody, as in Lars and the Real Girl and Drive.

La La Land is a mostly well-made film that many audiences seem to love. It won best picture for comedy or musical at the Golden Globes and it's an early Oscar contender for best picture. But it's too long, the music isn't great, and I can't stand all the brightly colored twirling skirts. Seriously, who dresses like that outside of a tampon commercial?

La La Land continues at the Carmike 12.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Free spin"

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