Believe the fans and haters alike. This year’s inevitable Oscar darling is at once a stirring ode to Hollywood magic and a somewhat misguided paean to director Damien Chazelle’s considerable gifts. It proves far more charming while focused on the former.
“Another Day of Sun” Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s propulsive breakthrough, ends with a sequence of disquieting virtuosity. Our protagonist (Miles Teller’s Andrew Neyman) explodes in an eruption of artistic cacophony, unleashing a drum solo that seems to cry both, “Please, notice me,” and “For the love of God, help me!” Chazelle’s follow-up, another jazzy critical darling, opens with comparable bombast. Its first number sees a troupe of gridlocked Angelenos leap from their cars and burst into song. The sequence quickly calls to mind both the artistry and the desperation of Whiplash’s final moments. Chazelle seems far less interested in capturing the action on screen than in reminding audiences of his directorial prowess. His camera zips and twirls with the grace of a dancer, but its routine distracts more often than it thrills. This ‘look-at-me’ camerawork continues into the next number. As “Someone in the Crowd” draws to a merciful close, Chazelle’s camera dives into a pool and performs an underwater pirouette. Viewers prone to shaky-cam-induced nausea will find themselves running toward the exit doors. Thankfully, the film proceeds on a smaller, more personal, scale for the rest of its run-time. Chazelle’s head never fully leaves his backside, but he mostly cedes a share of the spotlight.
“The Ones Who Dream” Between its two opening numbers, Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an unfulfilled pianist, experience an episode of not-quite-meet-cute. Their first hints of romance appear soon after another single-shot performance. Stone and Gosling may not be Broadway-level talents, but this sequence achieves everything the opening could not. In fact, their relatively modest (though far from meager) gifts add a layer of plausibility to their character’s professional struggles. If we ignore their movie-star looks and megawatt charisma, it's sometimes as if two figures from the real world walked onto a Hollywood backlog to give it a try as a triple threat. Their duet is sweet, engaging, and, best of all, speaks to the chemistry they've honed over three films together. The film loses considerable appeal whenever its central lovers are separated. Unfortunately, they spend much of the second act pursuing their crafts independently. La La Land’s detractors aren’t quite off the mark when they dig into Chazelle’s limited characterization of these protagonists. Both actors contend with a script that paints them as little more than single-minded strivers. In a sense, they're like the more charming and socially adjusted answer to Whiplash’s driven antihero. They suffer and sacrifice in pursuit of their passions without quite resorting to that film’s artistic masochism. It seems almost unfair to chide the film’s somewhat archetypal treatment of Mia and Seb. Though this story of boy-meets-girl doesn't quite boast a fully-realized boy or girl, its romance, while perhaps underexplored, produces a rare kind of spark.