With the first scene, one realizes that this movie is going to be weird: an LA traffic jam turns into a spectacular song-and-dance routine, with dozens of dancers leaping and spinning over and around cars. However, when the first singer opens her mouth, her singing voice is a whisper. This sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
Emma Stone plays an aspiring actress working at a Starbucks next to a major studio. Ryan Gosling is a frustrated jazz pianist. She goes from audition to audition; he gets and loses gigs that are beneath him musically. They dislike each other, warm up, fall in love, move in together. (She drops her erstwhile boyfriend in the process.) Gosling’s character dreams of buying a jazz club and making sure jazz stays alive. She encourages him in his dream and even creates a logo for the club.
To make a living he takes a job with a fusion jazz group and goes on tour. She is upset by his absence and they have an argument when he has a brief chance to return. She accuses him of selling out his dream. She writes a one-woman show and rents a theater to present it. He misses her opening night because of a photo shoot for his band. Her show is a flop and he wasn’t there, so she goes home. He hears a phone message from a director offering her a job interview, and drives cross-country to her parents’ house to pick her up for it. She refuses, but changes her mind at the last minute and goes back with him. At the interview she is offered a movie job in France, which she takes. They pledge each other their love but recognize that they have no idea what will happen.
Five years later, we see her back in LA in an expensive house, with kids and a tall handsome husband who looks a lot like her pre-Gosling boyfriend. They go out for an evening, get caught in traffic and take the nearest exit, where they end up at the jazz club she once visited with Gosling. The club’s logo is now the one she designed for him. There is a band playing to a full house. Gosling spots her and plays a composition she had heard him play before, and we see sweet images of what their life would have been like if they had been together. (These scenes are much more middle-class than her current life appears to be.) Then she goes home with her husband.
As I said at the beginning, the whispery voice in the first song sets the tone for the film. Throughout the movie, it is obvious that Gosling and Stone are neither dancers nor singers. They sing and dance competently, but nothing like Fred and Ginger, Julie Andrews, Judy Garland, Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby. Gosling does his own piano playing, which is lovely but not technically complicated. (The internet tells me he learned to play in three months for the role.) The skilled performances are by the secondary characters who are professionals.
So we have a musical that does not star singers or dancers, and we have a romance that is not a love story. The story line left me very unsatisfied: These people don’t have cell phones? Is she just shallow or did something happen to end their relationship?
How can a movie be so spectacular and work so well when so many things are not quite right? I don’t know.