Damien Chazelle has had a short but interesting career, beginning when he was a student graduating from Harvard Film School with Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. In some major way, the three films he's directed have involved jazz musicians. Guy and Madeline concerned itself with the tumultuous relationship between a jazz trumpeter and his girlfriend. Chazelle moved on to the Oscar-winning Whiplash, a film about a jazz drummer so consumed by his craft that he destroys his personal life in order to achieve mastery under an abusive teacher. And now we have La La Land.
In the space of two years, Chazelle made his angry young man movie with Whiplash and has already matured into a filmmaker who has decided not to take himself so seriously. Not that Whiplash was completely dour; it had plenty of moments of dark humor, usually at the expense of its protagonist and perpetrated by its villain. But La La Land is so effervescent and light, you have to wonder how it came from the same writer-director. You can look back to Guy and Madeline for its genesis, but as a standalone work, it's so incredibly accomplished and ambitiously crafted (if not plotted), you'd be shocked to find out Chazelle isn't even 32 years old yet.
Perhaps to pay the bills between his personal passion projects, Chazelle has also written a few screenplays, bleak stories all (10 Cloverfield Lane, Grand Piano, The Last Exorcism Part II). How do you go from horror films to a movie that begins with a gleeful musical number set in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a Los Angeles freeway? These days dark sells more readily than light (La La Land has barely recouped its budget so far, compared to Whiplash's relative triumph), which may explain Chazelle's trajectory.
I dwell so much on the career of this fascinating writer-director because I don't yet know how I feel about his latest film. I went in with stratospherically high expectations, partially because of its critical reputation and the fact that Whiplash was my favorite film of 2014. And while many of the same key behind-the-camera talent persists from that earlier movie--composer Justin Hurwitz, editor Tom Cross--the tone is wildly different from anything else involving Chazelle. Because the movie is so extremely well put together, from DP Linus Sandgren's evocative lighting to the virtuoso camera movement that is choreographed with the large-scale musical numbers courtesy of Chazelle, I'm more inclined to say that I admire the film than I love it.
I think the main reason for this reservation lies in the story, which is grand but basic. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who begins to tire of the relentless disappointment of the audition cycle. She is an erstwhile playwright who may have an interesting story of her own to tell, but it takes her meeting up with the ambitious jazz pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), to become inspired to pursue her own projects. Sebastian wants to open up a jazz club that will cater to purists like him, although the demands of real life (read: paying the bills) tempt him to take on a regular gig playing in a mainstream band led by Keith (John Legend).
In the broad strokes, Mia and Sebastian come together and then they come apart. They both realize that they cannot reconcile their personal ambitions in order to stay together, a conflict that ultimately arises out of narrative necessity than it does organically from the characters. The film even goes so far as to show us how the couple could have worked together had they simply learned to compromise and stick to their guns. It's a sequence that fulfills our desire to see things work out between these two beautiful people while giving us a bittersweet ending that more befits Chazelle's priorities as a storyteller.
I'm not sure that La La Land earns that ending: in execution, the film is dazzling, but in its structure it is utterly predictable. The movie is so light on its feet in such a wonderful way that for it to attempt for a more complicated resolution feels like betrayal of its purity as a piece of cinematic cotton candy. I feel dissatisfied by the ending not because I require complete resolution and catharsis, but because I don't believe that it follows through on the film's promise. It's a rare situation in which I would prefer a fantastical, unrealistic ending to a practical one. This, after all, is far from a practical film.
Fortunately, the story, though a major part of the movie, is not the only one and the rest of the film's virtues far outweigh this shortcoming. We've now seen Stone and Gosling play opposite one another in three movies of varying quality (Crazy. Stupid. Love. and Gangster Squad), but they've never been more luminous together until now. Stone brings her trademark wit and charm opposite Gosling's beguiling cynicism as an actor; she lifts him out of his naturally brooding state and he gives her depth to play against. Neither of them is a better singer or dancer than they are actor, but they accomplish what they need without much of a hitch. A highlight is a near-silent sequence at the Griffith Park Observatory that demonstrates these two need no words to express themselves onscreen.
I am tough on this movie because I know that Chazelle can do better, story-wise. His natural inclination towards darkness in his films undoes the spell La La Land manages to cast upon you. The fact that Chazelle is working with broad character types is no flaw of the film, either (Whiplash's Andrew Neiman and Fletcher aren't exactly Othello and Iago), but he misses the opportunity to take Mia and Sebastian's dalliance to its logical conclusion. I admire Chazelle's willingness to stray from the pattern established by his antecedents, but in this case, I think that comfort would have gone down more smoothly than complexity. There's a reason you don't take a shot of bourbon after enjoying a glass of champagne.