"Is it too nostalgic? It feels nostalgic," Emma Stone's aspiring actress character says at one point in La La Land about a one-woman show she's writing. "Are people going to like it?"
"Who cares?" Ryan Gosling's struggling jazz pianist replies. "F**k them."
Although all-around self-reflective, it's the moment where the movie most directly comments on itself. The story follows Mia (Stone), who can't land a part, and Sebastian (Gosling), who is unfulfilled with his supper club gigs, after they meet cute and, though their opposing personalities initially clash, soon find themselves swept up in a whirlwind romance before settling into something like a real love story.
It's a thoroughly modern film, capturing all of the minutiae of being a millennial in 2016, as well as the intricacies of falling in and out of love while chasing your dreams in Los Angeles, but it's presented through a filter of old Hollywood. There are shades of recent musicals like The Last Five Years, but La La Land is more at home in the Singing in the Rain crowd, and that juxtaposition of retro and new gives the film a sense of twee sentimentality that permeates from the very first song and dance number.
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Stone is exceptional as Mia. Her voice is lilting and sugary, like an indie singer without her ukulele. She's sad and sweet and funny and dreamy, and you see it all in her eyes, perhaps wider and more vulnerable than ever. Gosling plays Sebastian with square-jawed grit and, though he is not quite as charming as Stone is in this, she has charm to spare. And Gosling always was good at a rom-com.
Their chemistry, if their two prior films hadn't proven it already, is undeniable. The film's old-fashioned sensibilities play especially sweetly with these two, who themselves feel plucked of the golden era. You don't often see 20-somethings battling their nerves over holding hands these days.
When La La Land -- and directing wunderkind Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), himself -- isn't afraid to take risks and be weird, it soars. Which is why, despite a slightly saggy middle portion, any faults are forgiven with a final medley that is bittersweet and beautiful and, above all, unique. Ultimately, this is more than just a love story. It's an exploration of the high highs and low lows of trying to make it, of struggling and compromising, of success and happiness and what it means to live your truth.
All of which sounds heady, but La La Land is also just a good reminder of the power of cinema. For two hours, you're transported to a different L.A., one that's a bit brighter and sunnier than our own, as if it were shot with Low-Fi on Instagram, one where you don't have to worry about your own problems. La La Land is unabashedly sentimental and, sure, a bit corny and too cute at times, but it has heart and it isn't afraid to wear it on its sleeve. It's best when it doesn't care if you like it -- but you will.