Ryan Gosling received his second Oscar nomination for portraying Sebastian in La La Land.
Ryan Gosling after his career best work in Drive got into just a little bit of an acting rut. In that his subsequent roles were certain variations on the role of the stoic "hero". Although I will defend his work in A Place Beyond the Pines to a certain extent, I find it much harder to do so for his work in Only God Forgives. Nevertheless it felt like Ryan Gosling was capable of more and there was no reason for him to be pigeonholed in such roles. Gosling in 2016 offered a complete 180 turn from those roles first through his portrayal of a bumbling private detective in The Nice Guys then later in his performance here. A performance, that while frequently recognized, isn't actually talked about all that much in regards to the film, the focus performance wise being given far more to Stone than Gosling. This may seem a little shortsighted, though there is an identifiable reason why I'll get to later, since the film relies on both of them to make it all work. La La Land after all would be horribly disconnected if either of the central performances did not work since the film is so reliant on the leads given the minor nature of the supporting cast.
Both leads are more than eager to play and in terms of the two of them you'd be hard pressed to find better chemistry than there is between these two. Like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, Cary Grant with almost all of his female co-stars, or Audrey Hepburn with almost all of her male co-stars, there is just that something there between them, something that just seems so right. Part of is that they don't really even need to ever exactly show that they love each other that is really what makes this sort of chemistry so special. The ease of it all is what makes it work so well, the affection is shown so naturally just in just the way they interact and engage one another. Even the traditional slightly division phase at the beginning of their relationship is impeccably handled. The two just give it this grace that makes the two of them together something quite special, and the two of them deserve to be mentioned among the best onscreen romantic pairs. The two just have it which in itself elevates the film more than just a bit, as the two of them seem so perfect together which is essential in creating that movie magic feeling the film has.
To narrow in on Gosling, what he does give here is technically a very traditional leading turn for a romantic/comedic musical, but doing this well should not be something overlooked. First of all it's such a nice thing to see Gosling in this form to begin with. No reason to brood because Gosling just has such an over abundance of charm in the role, that makes him appealing even when the character does a few things that aren't really. Gosling makes Sebastian such an endearing figure with just that breezy unassuming confidence he brings out in the right moments. Gosling though actually is careful though not to over do it in order for it to turn to smugness. Gosling isn't a Broadway singer, though my opinion on this point is always the same. Hey as long as you're not Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia, I care more about the acting around the singing, and the dancing for that matter. As with Richard Attenborough in Doctor Dolittle and James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, I love the way Gosling so effectively exudes the exuberance of the act. This honestly only gets amplified by Stone matching him every step of the way, and the two of them portray such sheer joy in the act that it in only results in sheer joy.
There is also the comedic with the romantic and musical though and Gosling excels at this as well. Gosling is a hoot here alone or playing off Stone. I think part of the reason he's so charming here is how good he is at being kind of a hapless dope when attempting to first play just a bit of jazz within a required playlist, or later attempting to keep his job by a terrible explanation. Gosling is, well, rather adorable in making Sebastian both rather smooth when he needs to be but also, well not so smooth, in kind of a smooth way still, if that makes any sense. Also special mention must be made to his hilarious exasperated glances when dealing with the random requirements of a weird photographer. Gosling just has such a good grasp on the material that no comedic line is wasted. He perhaps excels all the more when getting to trade a few with Stone. I have particular affection for his death stare when Mia requests "I Ran" while Sebastian is playing in a 80's tribute band, only topped at Gosling being enjoyably pathetic as Sebastian attempts to describe himself as a "serious musician". The two though again, with the comedic moments as well, just have that intangible spark.
As entertaining as this performance is that isn't all there is to it. The character's ambition to open a Jazz club, and for jazz just to be recognized in some way, defines much of his personality. Gosling captures the character's passion incredibly well because he makes it infectious. Listening to him is a bit like talking to Vincent from Collateral about Jazz, you know just without people getting shot in the head at the end of it, seriously though Gosling makes the enthusiasm so genuine that you can understand Sebastian's hesitation for the high paying music job that goes against his specific passion. On that point though Gosling carefully never overdoes the scenes where he has compromised his ambition. In that he doesn't portray this overt anguish or anything like that, just more of a lack of that passion as he goes along with a musical that just wasn't his dream. Now this is where it gets to the most dramatic elements of Gosling's performance, and to be fair this would be already be a great "light weight" turn anyways. I don't think Gosling quite gets the credit he deserves in this respect though.
Now, as I wrote, there is an identifiable reason for that in that Emma Stone technically gets the more exact dramatic focus particularly in the show stopping "Audition" number which is amazing and that's part of the reason why's she my lead actress win, but that does not mean there is nothing for Gosling. Gosling's most dramatic moments actually are particularly quiet ones. For example there is scene early on where Sebastian overhears Mia talking to her mother where she notes his lack of success. Gosling is very good in silently reflecting the way Sebastian takes this in and actually with that moment gives sense to his willingness to initially compromise his dream. This eventually leads though to their confrontation, after Sebastian has been away for a long time on tour, yet surprises Mia with a meal. During this time though she questions about his compromise. This is not dealing with the sort of harrowing tragedies we will find with his fellow nominees, nevertheless I found Gosling's work incredibly moving here. Gosling subtly reveals such vulnerability just as he defends himself, and in his eyes he gives this sense of a real heartbreak since Mia is questioning his compromise when he made the compromise for her. By doing this he makes Sebastian's ill advised remarks towards Mia natural because they come from that heartbreak. As good as they are together what I find most remarkable is how effectively the two end up dividing. The two of course have that unmistakable love yet just as naturally they reveal the problems that arise. They earn the ending and make it as bittersweet as it is. Both Gosling and Stone make it so those final glances say everything, the regret, the sadness, and still the love, without saying a single word. I have to admit the more I've written about this performance the more I've come to appreciate it all the more. You know I've made my argument, set up the evidence, but in summation I think I'll quote the terrible Akiva Goldsman and ask you all to close your eyes. Now imagine an actor that must rely on his charm, his chemistry with his co-star, a comedic ease and effortless grace, yet still with the right dramatic nuance. Can you see him? I want you to picture that actor. Now imagine he's Miles Teller. Doesn't seem quite the same now does it?