When one knows before watching a film that it is a front-runner for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it is sometimes difficult to leave your expectations at the door. This year offers a new wrinkle: the early favorite for Best Picture is a musical– the first to have a legitimate shot at claiming Hollywood’s top prize since 2012’s “Les Miserables”
“La La Land” is an original musical starring Emma Stone, (“The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Birdman”) and Ryan Gosling (“The Nice Guys,” “Drive”). In general, musicals tend appeal to a somewhat niche audience. Director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) seems to recognize this fact, because the impressive musical numbers come and go as the plot demands– this opposed to being scattered throughout the duration without consequence like most traditional musicals. “La La Land” is anything but traditional, which may be intriguing to some, while a cause for skepticism in others.
Mia, (Stone) is a struggling actress who moves to Los Angeles looking for her big break. Sebastian, (Gosling) is a jazz pianist with dreams of his own. Each ultimately struggles with the unfortunate choice between a happy relationship or individually successful careers.
The film hooks audiences right away with the show-stopping opening number, but sticks mostly to a straightforward story and characters afterwards. While musical numbers in many traditional musicals act as exposition, or to move the plot forward, the songs in “La La Land” mostly serve to establish a mood, or demonstrate an idea that fits with each particular scene. These songs mainly exist to be entertaining, which they certainly are. Each is well written, well performed, and well choreographed. A few are even pretty catchy. However, there should be no expectations for “La La Land” to stand-up as a Broadway-style musical.
What remains, however, is a sharply written, emotionally engaging story about two characters that connect with audiences who will want to see them succeed. Mia and Sebastian may have very simple motivations, but both are so likable and well-acted that it is easy to root for the pair without knowing too much about them as people. Stone and Gosling are both outstanding in their roles, and deftly balance comedy and drama as well as the demands of the musical performances.
As with many front-runners or winners of the Best Picture Oscar, the film’s few flaws can—and have—been magnified in the eyes of people with high expectations for the film. The deficient character development for the leads, and the disappearance of musical numbers after the first act are among the most contentious points. The lack of more musical numbers contributes to the slower pacing in the second act that can lead to some watch-checking. Also, viewers should note that while “La La Land” is not a typical romantic comedy, it still follows the genre’s traditional plot structure with only a few clever deviations.
“La La Land” is unlike any film offered this awards season. The story and characters may not be as complex as the run-of-the-mill awards contender, but what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in sheer entertainment value. It is a fun film to watch and the exceptional acting, skillful directing, and high productions values certainly justify “La La Land’s” alleged status as the film to beat this awards season.
Running time: 128 minutes
Now Playing in theaters