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'La La Land': On the One Hand, and Then on the Other
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
02:43PM / Friday, January 13, 2017
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Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling try mightily to capture movie-musical nostalgia.

I already knew I was somewhat of a dreamer, but my generally warm and starry-eyed acceptance of wunderkind writer-director Damien Chazelle's "La La Land," a throwback/homage to the nascent movie musicals of the 1930s, also confirms that I am a hopeless romantic. The curious idea to have Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play the sort of aspiring showbiz kids Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell portrayed in vehicles like "42nd Street" (1933) won me over despite the film's unrealistic plotting and a minor litany of incongruities.

But then again, this is the movies, and just how much suspension of disbelief one is willing to assume is always in direct proportion to how much logic they're willing to forego for the sake of a little fantasy. Whereas I've no problem there, my principal objection — and this is a big one — is with the casting choices. Maybe it's my tin ear. But though both Stone and Gosling exude decent chemistry and likability as mutually star-struck Mia and Sebastian — she an actress, he a jazz musician — neither actor's singing ability is reason alone to see this film.

All the same, while enjoying the typicality of the young talents come to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune, and rooting for them with the same idealistic gullibility that has me hoping that the Knicks will one day again win an NBA title, I'm a sucker for the magic of the movies. So, though the great breakout song and dance scene never arrives to blow me away, Stone and Gosling do provide the requisite amount of hopefulness and schmaltz.

Back to the negative side of the ledger, the lead characterizations, while sufficing to please on the movie's decidedly fairy-tale level, don't pass the Goldberger Musical Characterization Credibility Test (GMCCT). It asks a simple question, and I don't mean to give anything away here. But, if either character failed to make the big time and went home, whether to Podunk, Pachuch or Dogpatch, to pursue a career in accounting, would we follow them? Sweet as Stone's Mia is, and as zealously dedicated as Gosling's jazzman is, nah, they can keep their 1040 forms.

Then again, oh, those dreamy scenes up on Mullholland Drive, the possibilities of the title geography in the background seemingly achievable to the couple who, by all hackneyed rights are fated to embody the mystical powers of love. They have their winning ways. Gee, if only they could sing. Yet there are other saving graces. Emma Stone is an accomplished actress, and the numerous, painfully disappointing auditions that Mia suffers through proves it. Likewise, Gosling's unique form of intensity convinces us of Sebastian's dedication to his craft.

However, it all keeps coming back to the time-honored concept "La La Land" aspires to emulate in its contemporary take of the musical. You see, as Dr. Freud could tell you, there is an inherent appeal in the cliché. Who among us, including even the most dedicated fuddy-duddies, didn't at one time or another harbor dreams of stardom in one of the performing arts? C'mon, admit it. OK, I'll go first. As a young teen, I sang along to the top 100 every Saturday morning without evincing the slightest bit of talent. Good thing being a Major Leaguer was my backup plan.

In other words, you get your vicarious thrills where you may, even if your overready acceptance of pie-in-the-sky story mechanisms makes those thrills feel a bit guilty. And in all fairness, director-writer Chazelle's purposely shopworn paean to a bygone era brims with dedication, even if the execution fails to breathe wowing new life into the genre. Still, the song and dance numbers, featuring tunes more talky than evocatively melodic, while ambitious in that they are mostly done on location, are also compromised by the pitfalls of that directorial decision.

Insofar as the fable itself, this is straight storyboard material save for a sudden and cynically realistic twist that borrows an idea from "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). It might have you mulling your own romantic past. You know, the shoulda, coulda, woulda stuff that is ultimately unanswerable but remains nonetheless tempting to ponder. All this said, even if he doesn't always arrange things with artistic plausibility, filmmaker Chazelle does fill his product with many of the enchanting ingredients we seek in our lives.

Alas, it's the promise of love, that mysterious indefinable, held out in great quantities, that repeatedly ameliorates this effort's flaws. Hence, those of a sentimental bent willing to subconsciously reshuffle the film's attracting elements to their own liking might foreseeably transport themselves to a "La La Land" of their own.

"La La Land," rated PG-13, is a Lionsgate release directed by Damien Chazelle and stars Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling and J.K. Simmons. Running time: 128 minutes

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