Being a lover of classic Hollywood musicals often feels like a bit of a bait and switch. Every few years, Oscar pandering like La La Land gets trotted out to try to lure you into the cinema, starring heartthrobs like Ryan Gosling and patently quirky actresses like Emma Stone.
Don’t fall for it, fellow Golden Age of Hollywood nerds. La La Land tries to dress itself up as the answer to your nostalgia, even donning the garb of Cinemascope to drive home the idea that this one “really feels like old times.” Hell, the font of the title credits tries to trick you into thinking they’ve recovered a lost Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds classic from the backlot, except this time it stars Ryan and Emma.
But that’s exactly where the film’s problems start. Gosling and Stone are, at the very least, good actors when that’s all the role requires from them. Both arguably play their pigeonhole of choice — the stoic everyman and the bubbly everywoman — better than anyone else in their field. It seems logical, then, that Ryan and Emma would also succeed at playing those types in La La Land. But carrying a musical isn’t about filling types, it’s about blasting talent.
To a certain extent, Stone does well in this role compared to co-star Gosling. As an actress whose performances are always plump, if not overfilled, with energy, she’s able to buoy the overdramatic chops required to recreate a Hollywood movie musical. She is “fine” as one would concede. One can conceivably see her keeping up in dialogue with Fred Astaire or Judy Garland, even if it would be uncomfortable to watch them share a duet. Or, even worse, watch her sort of pitifully trot about — or, er, “dance” — next to them.
Yet nothing quite robs La La Land of its ploy to artificially recreate movie magic as Ryan Gosling. From the moment where he first sucks any spark of life out of a “snappy dialogue” with his throwaway-character sister, it is glaringly clear that the actor just does not understand how palpable the energy needs to be in a musical like Emma does. Musicals are, by their very nature, over-the-top, extravagant affairs where realism is thrown to the wayside. When was the last time you saw a couple break into a coordinated dance number in the middle of a park? Holding back for credibility only manages to make the universe uneven.
Stone does keep up well on her end in this element. Her dancing and singing might be not be extraordinary, but she does fulfill the bigness that a Hollywood movie musical thrives on. Furthermore, her offerings in the former categories are downright impressive next to Ryan. One negative review in The Guardian went as far as to shadily categorize La La Land‘s genre as “films in which the female lead is blatantly better at singing and dancing than the man.” It went on to describe Gosling’s character as “every bad date you’ve ever had.”
Clearly not everyone agrees with this assessment. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have both secured Golden Globes for their work in La La Land, and both have also made it to the shortlist for an Oscar. Even the actor himself seemed a little surprised when he accepted his statue last month. It’s no secret, of course, that Hollywood is obsessed with nostalgia for itself. Just a few years ago, The Artist became the first foreign-produced film to ever win a Best Picture Oscar for essentially writing a love letter to Hollywood itself — even more flattering coming from the other de facto capital of cinema, France.
These criticism are not even to touch on the political issues Ryan’s character unearthed. Unsurprisingly, a certain segment of the public was irritated to see a white man rail on about realizing his dream of staying true to the roots of jazz while his black friend sells out alongside of him. The media has already started talking about the “backlash against La La Land,” undeserving, they say, of its 14 Oscar nominations, particularly when it comes to Gosling.
That hatred is likely to flare up even more when it walks away with many of those awards at the end of this month. Even though Ryan Gosling is unlikely to beat out Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea, La La Land is the exact kind of safe choice that dominates the Best Picture category. In a year where a lot of people are looking for lightness, it also benefits from being the only real contender that’s not a drama.
When it comes down to it, Singin’ in the Rain is a great movie because it was an excuse to get three talented people on screen and watch them sing and dance circles around each other. That’s why it’s special. It’s escapist cinema because it’s not about the story, it’s about the entertainers. It has nothing to do with the fact that it was shot in Cinemascope or romanticizes Hollywood. Instead, it’s the kind of movie that makes people romanticize Hollywood in the first place.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are fine examples of what cinema has evolved, for the better, to be today, but neither would have gotten reasonably far in the movie musical genre 50 years ago — La La Land‘s mediocrity is plenty proof of that.
[Featured Image by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SBIFF]