If it were any more enchanting, the musical romantic comedy La La Land, tipped for an Oscars sweep, would break your heart. And that’s my complaint. Why isn’t it more enchanting? When a movie has swept an audience off its collective feet in the first hour — just like Angeleno lovers Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, dancing in air under the Griffith Observatory dome — why dump them back on Planet Earth in hour two? Why sentence them to cracking rocks in the Star Is Born/New York, New York retread penitentiary?
Writer-director Damien Chazelle made Whiplash and has music in his veins like a toxin. The film starts with a jam session in a traffic jam, a song-and-dance spectacular on a flyover. It’s stunning. And it’s the perfect preparation for romantic take-off between Gosling (nightclub pianist) and Stone (wannabe actress), who progress from Hollywood-lite road rage to love’s levitation. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camerawork smooths each of the film’s taxi-ings from dialogue to dance and song. And there is a fantastic charm in Gosling’s sexy, airy-voiced, dapper-hoofing lounge musician, yet another in this actor’s repertoire of misfits-with-the-magic.
It’s Stone who is more ballast than ballet. She sings bravely and cries on cue. But her struggling starlet role is off the assembly line and so is most of the second half, conveyor-belting the statutory conflicts in drama and ditty. (“Here’s to the hearts that break,/Here’s to the mess we make” goes one song). As F. Scott Fitzgerald almost said, there are no second acts in American musicals. But even he would have cheered when the coda comes in like gangbusters’ return, restoring credibility to a film that begins and ends with full-impact dazzlement.