La La Land

La La Land ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

They never learn.
Beyond the point
of no return."
- Radiohead, "Daydreaming"

"Dreams — they complicate my life."
- "Get Up," R.E.M.

So, let me get this straight: This film is saying one of two things.

It might be saying that the pursuit of my dream is absolutely necessary, but it might cost me what I know, on some gut level, would have been a more meaningful life, dooming me to a dispiriting nostalgia. In other words, dreams seduce us an lead us to lesser lives.

Or, it might be saying that that alternate path, the "true love" route, was just a seduction as well, one that would have failed and left me wishing I'd followed the dream.

Perhaps it's saying both. Either way, what a bummer.

This film, like Whiplash, is deeply conflicted in interesting ways. It gives us a world ruled by the devil of longing, the devil that will require devastating bargains of you if you dare to dream. It wants to soar, but a bitter and disillusioned heart chains it down. It wants to get carried away on whimsy and fantasy, but every direction it goes in hopes of achieving liftoff leads to loss and regret. You're either a sellout or you're tormented, misunderstood, and lonely, certain to lose any genuine moments you seize. And the only "true" moments are not the euphoria of falling in love but the pathos of connecting in mutual disappointment — so that a lover's pre-audition pep talk becomes both courageous and the moment that dooms a relationship.

I'm not saying that there isn't a lot of truth in Chazelle's worldview. I'm just saying that the movie never achieves, for me, the ecstatic highs that I've heard described by its fans. Instead, I feel the movie, like its characters, wants to achieve these highs, but it cannot because of a streak of cynicism (as Calum Marsh correctly named it) through its heart.

If it didn't have Ryan Gosling's occasional, spontaneous jolts of startlement — his scare-take as he enters his apartment for the first time is my favorite moment in the film — this would all feel too calculated and planned. Gosling plays notes of clumsiness and bafflement here that he also played earlier this year in The Nice Guys — and they make such a huge difference, breaking him out of the stoic dullness that has come to characterize some of Brad Pitt recent turns. We're watching nothing short of a surprising mid-career evolution: He has become, first and foremost, a singular comedian, one with a charisma as distinct as Bill Murray's.

Don't get me wrong: Emma Stone is a world-class entertainer. This movie is basically a super-sized version of her Tonight Show lip-synch battle performance . But the moments in this movie that work best for me all belong to Gosling. He gives this movie some spring in its step. But no, it never takes flight.

[POST-OSCARS P.S.: So now I can revise that last line: This movie's high points, like it's momentary Oscar win, end up feeling like accidents that make its ultimate insufficiency more frustrating. ]

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