Every year around this time I catch an early peek at a slight, little crowd-pleasing entertainment that somehow, over the course of a vigorous pre-release publicity campaign, mutates into such a wildly over-praised awards hog that I’ll often find myself resenting the damn thing before I even get around to writing my review. I guess you could call this condition Slumdog Syndrome, or The Weinstein Effect, and this year’s victim is The Artist.
Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’ main gimmick—and it is indeed a gimmick, however delightful—is that The Artist chronicles the death throes of silent cinema with nary a word of dialogue. Shot in black and white using that old boxy, 1.33 Academy aspect ratio, the movie employs printed inter-titles and hyperbolic facial expressions, aping the conventions of its late 1920s setting.
Matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Duardjin) is a natural ham with a toothy grin and a plucky Jack Russell terrier sidekick. But his big-screen tales of swashbuckling derring-do fall out of fashion when the movie studios switch over to sound pictures, an innovation our headstrong hero dismisses as a passing fad. At the same time, George strikes the fancy of an up-and-coming chorus girl ingénue (Bérénice Bejo) whose career begins to take off right when his falters. Faster than you can say A Star Is Born, we’ve got an old-fashioned Hollywood behind the scenes melodrama.
The references don’t stop there, as Hazanavicius also lifts generously from Singin’ In The Rain, Citizen Kane, finally at one point even needle-dropping Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo score right onto the soundtrack. The Artist, which at 100 minutes is about 20 too long, is carried on the irrepressible charm of the two lead performers, and the buoyancy of the filmmaker’s goofy movie love. There’s also that adorable dog.
I guess it’s not really fair to blame this picture for opening so soon after Hugo, but Martin Scorsese’s thrilling evocation of a similar era and subject makes The Artist appear very shallow indeed. The feel-good finale sends you soaring out of the theatre, not wondering until a couple days later what exactly that was all supposed to be about.
This is a bauble, not a jewel.