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Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling Immortalized on Hollywood Boulevard

Variety logo Variety 12/7/2016 Guy Lodge
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Hollywood is strewn with the phantom doubles of films that might have been if early casting instincts had been followed. Over time, these ghosts bear less and less resemblance to their existing incarnations, to the point that they barely seem conceivable. (What would “Casablanca” have looked, or sounded, or felt like with Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan instead of Humphrey Bogart and Igrid Bergman?) “La La Land” is but a few months old in the minds of those who saw it first, but already it’s impossible to imagine with the once-mooted Miles Teller and Emma Watson in place of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone: Teller and Watson are adept, attractive performers, certainly, but Damien Chazelle’s modern-vintage musical moves entirely to the rhythm of the star duo it got.

The duo are now immortalized at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Both accomplished, independent leading players in their own right, Gosling and Stone nonetheless bring an invaluably entwined history to “La La Land”: It’s their third on-screen collaboration, following 2010’s winning romantic comedy “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” and 2013’s plasticized underworld romp “Gangster Squad.”

Even the latter, stiffer film proved the tinderbox energy between them; in both, Gosling’s laconic cool and Stone’s spacier sweetness complement each other. Hollywood doesn’t cultivate recurring star pairings as much these days as they did in the golden age, when studio bosses recognized the renewable chemistry between a Katharine Hepburn and a Cary Grant. Gosling and Stone have something of that easy, teasy energy between them.

In “La La Land” — a more complex, compromised love story than either of their previous team-ups — the dynamic between them deepens and diverges somewhat. Their sparring is as effervescent as before, yet it’s Gosling’s self-pitying jazzman who comes off as the more vulnerable romantic; Stone’s starlet-in-waiting gets the pithier lines, the more guarded heart. This may be an expansion of their on-screen relationship, but it shouldn’t be a revelation to fans of either actor individually.

Well before his taut, taciturn work in “Drive” sealed him in the public imagination as the decade’s most unflappable sex symbol, Gosling had shown us how he could hurt. He nabbed a deserved first Oscar nomination as an earnestly dedicated but self-destructive schoolteacher in “Half Nelson”; he was robbed of a second for his finest screen work to date in “Blue Valentine,” a wrenching study in unsustainable artistry and emotional wreckage that one could view as a rawer blueprint for his characterization in “La La Land.” These breakthroughs merely built on the gangly, riveting angst he had demonstrated in such youthful showcases as Henry Bean’s making-of-a-terrorist drama “The Believer” in 2001.

Stone got her official stamp of approval as a “serious actress” last year with a supporting Oscar nod for her work as Michael Keaton’s bristling daughter in “Birdman” — earned principally with a hot hairdryer blast of a monologue directed against her father, detailing his manifold failings with merciless economy. It was good, gutsy stuff, but those who thought it a step up for her had perhaps undervalued the detail and layering of her earlier comic work.

The Oscar nom, for starters, should have come before for her incandescent star turn in “Easy A,” in which she articulated the rotating facades of adolescence — turning on a dime from sexual cockiness to cluelessness — with ease, while bantering like an old pro with vets Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci. “La La Land” is the first vehicle she’s had since then that gives her as many notes to play. She was a good sport with ungenerous material in the “Amazing Spider-Man” reboots, while her two outings with Woody Allen showed off her vigor without giving her a complete person to play, but one senses her richest phase is beginning.

One hopes it includes further opportunities for her and Gosling to tango.

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