Finally, a Movie that Gets Romance Right: “La La Land”

The new movie La La Land is hoovering up nominations this awards season. Critics are cheering its stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and it’s an event whenever Hollywood makes another movie musical.

But that’s not why people should rush out to see it.

Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) delivers the most unabashedly romantic movie in ages. By romantic, I mean the story is full of courtship rituals, moist-eyed glances, and the longing that comes from separation. It’s PG-13, and aside from some mature language, you won’t cringe while watching it with your impressionable teens or your grandma.

It’s the kind of movie Hollywood once delivered with alacrity. Today, the rom-com is all but dead. We’re more likely to see movies featuring “friends with benefits” than a simple tale of boy meets girl. These days, it’s more like boy meets girl, girl spins some wild tale in order to lure him in, he, in turn, sets up this elaborate prank to get her attention. . .

Exhausted yet? Then you haven’t seen How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or anything with Kate Hudson, for that matter. Heck, When Harry Met Sally, the pinnacle of the rom-com genre, is more than two decades old, and we still haven’t found decent replacements for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as America’s sweethearts. Movie romance circa 2016 is raucous sex featuring foul-mouthed superheroes or comediennes. (Sorry, Deadpool and Amy Schumer. We love you, but it’s just not the same).

This is why La La Land is such a revelation, above and beyond its ebullient dance numbers and irresistible set design. If you’re a single guy, walk, don’t run, to take a date to this movie.

The story follows Mia (Stone), a wannabe actress who keeps flunking auditions. She repeatedly bumps into a jazz pianist named Sebastian (Gosling), who is aching for his own break. . . but on his own terms. They fight—and flirt—and before you know it they’re walking around a studio lot opening up about their deepest dreams. You know, having a real conversation between young adults.

They don’t “hook up” or have meaningless sex. Nor do they wisecrack about their romance with a gratuitous, generic “best friend” character. They start a courtship process, the kind that seems hopelessly old-fashioned and wonderful at the same time.

Perhaps the most romantic moment comes (spoiler alert!) when Sebastian reaches out for Mia’s hand in a movie theater. Their fingers hesitate and then intertwine. It’s simple, but beautiful.

Of course, we’re also treated to some sumptuous musical numbers that capture the experience of falling in love in ways no other medium can. Chazelle ingeniously channels what made the era of great musicals wondrous without forgetting we’re in the 21st century.

Stone and Gosling surrender to the concept. They don’t offer ironic winks or suggestions that they’re too cool for a movie musical. They’re in love with the format as much as the characters are with each other. The movie is similarly in love with Los Angeles, making the City of Angels look like the most wonderful place for romance. (Not a small feat if you know Los Angeles).

We’ve seen flashes of old-school movie romance in recent years. I recall an audience literally swooning when Scott Eastwood’s character brings flowers along on his first date in the 2015 The Longest Ride. This year’s New Life lacked the cynicism permeating most romances. The recent Oscar nominee Brooklyn offered romance from the indie film ranks.

Will La La Land provide an overdue course correction for movie romances?

That may depend on whether or not crowds embrace the musical format. It’s Oscar season, and the competition is fierce across the board. There’s also a lot of competition for audience’s attention during the holiday movie season. Couples may line up to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and figure they’ve hit their allotted theater time.

That would be a shame. A fine movie romance like the one portrayed in La La Land deserves all the love it can get.

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