Silver Screen: The Artist ****
The Artist is the kind of movie you feel bad for not having seen more than you actually want to see it. A silent movie about a silent movie star-- a nifty gimmick, but nifty enough to carry an hour and forty minutes? But the collective guilt heaped on by the Academy (“Best picture!”) to annoying people at dinner parties (“Wait, you haven't seen The Artist?”) finally won out, and so I went, dutifully.
The film opens in 1927, which just happens to be the same year the first and, until recently, only Oscar-winning silent film was produced. Actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the top of his game, starring in a slew of action-adventure and war pictures. After a chance encounter at a premiere with a pretty young girl, Peppy Miller (Bé ré nice Bejo), George helps her land a spot as an extra, kicking off her film career.
Two years later, the paradigm has shifted. The dour studio boss (John Goodman) has turned the focus of his production company to talkies, and their newest star is Peppy Miller. Stalwart of silent acting George writes, produces, directs, and self-finances his own movie, a wordless adventure tale set deep in the jungle, but his expression is lost in a new din. Peppy and George meet again as their career paths cross, on opposing trajectories, but little does George know his future is linked to hers.
There's only one really great scene in The Artist, but it is a doozy. After getting an early look at the new technology bringing talkies to the forefront of the movie world, skeptical George goes back to his dressing room. He takes a drink and sets the glass down and is shocked to hear a faint clink. Outside, cars rumble past, bells clang, a dainty film actress giggles aloud. The innocuous sounds terrify George, who remains unable to speak. It's a twist of slight surrealism, and the only conventional sound effects for the vast majority of the movie, but it's shot with real verve. The trouble is, it captures George's plight so perfectly in a few short minutes that the rest of the film feels a bit like an unnecessarily protracted elaboration.
The film's most consistent asset is star Dujardin, who is fantastic throughout. He's able to capture the broadness of classic silent-film acting in the movie-within-a-movie sequences and delivers the rest of his performance with a more subtle, modern touch. It's a kind of hybrid style of acting, and it's wonderful. He's aided by supporting players who also, in lesser ways, manage to both capture and transcend the tropes of the era, most notably Goodman, as well as James Cromwell playing George's faithful assistant. Mad Men's Joel Murray also has a nice, brief role as a cop, and turns out to have the perfect face for silent film.
The Artist is undeniably a good film, unique in concept and smartly executed. It's got prestige elements of art-house cinema, but it's also a crowd-pleaser with its romantic subplot, happy ending, and adorable canine sidekick. But is it a great film?
It's probably not coincidence that the two big winners at this year's Academy Awards are movies about movies. Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which took home a raft of technical awards, is a fable about film preservation, while The Artist is an ode to the screen stars of yesteryear and a celebration of acting. Meanwhile, it was also recently noted that the vast majority of the Academy is made of up white guys older than sixty. Can we be surprised, then, that this group was beguiled by two movies that not only celebrated their accomplishments but implicitly promise them a lasting legacy?
Both Hugo and The Artist are, in their way, the industry assuring itself of its continued relevance. All the while, fewer and fewer original films get made as movie theaters jack up prices and inundate the moviegoing public with gimmickry (IMAX! 3D!) to try to buoy attendance. With the business in an upheaval that's starting to look more and more like the events that preceded the collapse of the music industry, Hollywood's answer doesn't seem to generate new ideas so much as disappear up its own celluloid asshole.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.