Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The glorious highs -- and unfortunate lows -- of Damien Chazelle's LA LA LAND

The opening number of LA LA LAND, as you've by now most likely heard, is a five-star wonder. It is almost as if that famous traffic pile-up from Godard's Weekend had suddenly taken flight into the realm of the Hollywood musical. Damien Chazelle's new movie owes much more, however, to the work of Jacques Demy than anyone else I can think of. And if it doesn't manage to come up to Demy's level of marvel (who could?), it remains, at its best, a splendor to behold. At least for those of us who can still appreciate the delights of the not-so-often-seen-these-days movie musical. We're here, all right, but we may not be in large enough numbers to make this critic's darling an all-out box-office blockbuster.

Mr. Chazelle, pictured at left, whose third and best film this is -- after the initial sleep-inducing Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and the propulsive but utterly over-the-top and unbelievable Whiplash -- has written and directed something that works very well on one level (as a musical) but merely OK on another (as a character-based romance). His characters, as usual, are paper-thin -- they're all motivated by one thing and one thing only -- even if (also as usual), they are played by very good actors -- in this case, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, shown above and below. Even the supporting cast is filled with creme-de-la-creme, although they are, to an actor, under-used in the extreme.

But since it is Gosling and Stone who must do all the heavy-lifting, we pretty much disregard the rest of the cast, except to note in passing, "Oh, look: There's Rosemarie DeWitt (below). Or J.K. Simmons (further below) Or John Legend! (shown at bottom)." And yes, there they all are.

The story, too, could hardly be more pedestrian. Boy and girl want a career and each other. But it seems as though these two goals are incompatible. At least in the universe of Mr. Chazelle. So they -- and we -- must settle.

There are compensations -- for both the characters and us viewers. Their careers turn out to be achievable, all right. (This is a Hollywood movie about Hollywood, after all.) And La La Land, for its audience -- depending on how much one can overlook -- is often at least a semi-delight.

The music, including even the much-vaunted City of Stars, is not particularly memorable, although there is that nifty opening number, and Ms Stone gets to sing one wonderful song toward movie's end that is beautifully written and performed.

What drags the movie down is its would-be love story between two people who really don't have much character, other than their often talked-and-sung-about "dreams." These two are walking clichés. They're fine, and then all of a sudden, with some space between them, they're not. And as much specificity as Stone and Gosling attempt to bring to their roles, the pair remains, alas, cardboard. Oh, movie fans and the very young will identify, all right. But the more jaded or simply experienced among us will want more.

The dancing, too, while sometimes lovely and seemingly almost improvised, is also not especially professional. There's no budding Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse or Leslie Caron on view. So La La Land, for all its outreach and occasional success, must be judged a worthy attempt that provides some pretty good entertainment, and includes some really lovely colors, costumes and production design. We are indeed starved for musicals, however, so this one certainly fills the bill for now.

After opening in the culture capitals a week or so back, the movie -- from Lionsgate and running two hours and eight minutes -- opens across the country this Friday. Here in South Florida you can view it at a number of local theaters. Wherever you are, to find the theater nearest you, simply click here.

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