The Problem: As with most Oscar movies this year, this movie suffers the most simply from having the Oscar weight laid on it, which it can’t quite sustain. It’s an odd and ungainly movie, nowhere near as good as Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s previous film. Its biggest problem is that it keeps forgetting that it’s a musical for long periods of time, so that each time a song broke out, it was awkward all over again. We never step through the portal into the magical world of musicals. This is not only because the song are awkwardly sung, which I realize is intentional, but because they’re simply not very catchy or memorable.
What I Liked About It: Nevertheless, the movie is wonderfully watchable, if you’re willing to put up the effort to meet it halfway. As you’ll recall, Crazy Stupid Love topped my 2011 list, so I’m already a fan of Stone and Gosling’s chemistry and I think they’re once again wonderful together. Most importantly, there’s the ending, where the movie finally soars. Like Arrival, this was a movie I resisted while I was watching it, but the final twenty minutes made it all worthwhile, as the movie suddenly snapped together in a deep and rich way.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: A Thwarted Process Can Create Empathy for Anyone. One of the sources for the backlash to this movie has been that people are simply sick and tired of being asked to care about actors, which is after all, one of the world’s least essential professions (little better than screenwriters, in fact.) Nevertheless, I didn’t have this problem with this movie, because I thought that Chazelle did an amazing job creating empathy with a hard-to-empathize-with profession, and he did it with a brilliant scene (that only an amazing actress like Stone could have pulled off).
We get two amusing montages of Stone on auditions, with all of the ridiculous dialogue she’s expected to sell, but then we drill down on one audition that’s painfully powerful: Stone is just about to summon up tears when the director gets distracted by someone else and Stone just has to hold that moment, just on the edge of tears, until the director pays attention again. Suddenly we realize just how hard and humiliating this job is. It may not be easy to sympathize with the desire to be a Hollywood star, but watching anyone getting humiliated while trying their best is pretty easy to empathize with.