Oscar contender The Artist and the buzz that puzzles

Jean Dujardin and Uggie in The Artist

At the end of every year, it seems, there are always a few films garnering heavy Oscar buzz, even though practically nobody has seen them outside the movie industry. They premiere at some festival, then get aired on a screen or two in Manhattan or LA in late December – just in time to qualify for that year’s round of nominations. This year was worse than most in memory in that regard. It can be a bit frustrating to read the year-end roundup of movie critics’ Ten Best lists and find that half of the titles on there haven’t yet appeared in “a theatre near you.”

Now, in late January – just in time for the Motion Picture Academy’s announcement of the nominees – one of those much-touted films has finally popped up on a few local screens. If the turnout at the opening-day matinée that I attended is any indication, the number of those screens may indeed stay low – even though The Artist came in second only to Hugo with nine Oscar nods, and even if it goes on to win in several categories.

I don’t usually get emotionally invested in the Oscars, but I have to admit that it was all the hype that lured me to check out The Artist. I have a special place in my heart for black-and-white films, and I expected to like it rather more than I did. My general impression is that The Artist ought not to have been up for nomination at all – not that it isn’t good, for what it is, but because what it is just doesn’t compare with any of the other film product out there. It’s like comparing…not apples and oranges; rather a sole kumquat against a whole field of apples and oranges.

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For those few who haven’t already cottoned on, The Artist is sort-of-but-not-exactly an attempt to make a silent film like those in the early days of cinema. Beyond the excellent pastiche musical soundtrack by Ludovic Bource, it does have some sound: slightly more dialogue than Marcel Marceau’s sole utterance of “Non!” in Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie, and a fair smattering of sound effects in some nightmare or hallucination scenes where George Valentin, the male lead played by Jean Dujardin, is struggling with his phobia about talking onscreen.

The plot is entirely predictable, and derivative of lots of other Hollywood sagas like A Star Is Born: Valentin is a swashbuckling silent-screen matinée idol with a little pencil mustache à la Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Either because he’s embarrassed by his heavy French accent or because he’s a snob who thinks that the talkies aren’t “art,” he’s unable to make the transition to the new medium and his career takes a nosedive. Meanwhile, a perky young starlet named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who owes her first big break (and the idea for her signature painted-on beauty mark) to an accidental encounter with Valentin, becomes progressively more successful in sound films. Melodrama becomes meta-melodrama as Peppy tries valiantly to help her stubborn mentor swallow his pride and make a new start in the business.

This is such a difficult movie to critique, because its obvious flaws are very, very deliberate. It throws in every early-days-of-Hollywood cliché ever conceived – but lovingly, so that it feels Scroogelike to make that an issue. And certainly the movie is fun to watch, if you harbor any affection whatsoever for the silents. It does what it does extremely skillfully. But I walked out wondering whether or why it was necessary to do it at all. It’s a movie without an original idea in its head.

Particularly puzzling is what to make of Dujardin’s Best Actor-nominated performance. If a guy plays a hammy actor convincingly by acting hammy, does that mean that he’s a good actor? Or just another ham? At no point, whether in the film or the various films-within-the-film, did I ever see Dujardin step outside the melodrama and make his character seem “real.” Whether that was the intention of director Michel Hazanavicius or not, I have trouble giving the actor himself much credit without further evidence.

If Bejo was better, that may be only because her character was written with a bit more nuance from the get-go – perhaps to convey an adaptable personality that was necessary to survive the changing times. Peppy is portrayed as a kind of Betty-Boop-made-flesh, but her onscreen and offscreen personae do at least vary somewhat. Best Actress? In my book, probably not – but a find nonetheless, and it will be interesting in the future to see what she can do in a “regular movie.”

Of the rest of the cast, John Goodman excels as a pompous Hollywood mogul who’s occasionally willing to take a chance on a favored actor’s instincts, and James Cromwell is haunting as Clifton, Valentin’s longtime valet who is so loyal that he refuses to leave when fired by his destitute boss. Penelope Ann Miller is stereotypically disagreeable as Valentin’s wealthy, unhappy wife Doris. I blush to admit that I entirely failed to spot Malcolm McDowell, credited as “the Butler,” now that he is no longer a young man.

Indeed, the one performer in The Artist whom no reviewer dare overlook is Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier, who just about trots off with the whole show (and I say this, not even being particularly a “dog person”). If there were a Best Animal Actor Oscar, this year Uggie would beat Joey of War Horse paws-down.

The Artist makes for a pleasant, nostalgic interlude in a dark theatre, but for my money, it can’t and shouldn’t be evaluated on the same plane as the other flicks that came out in 2011. And if you have to choose between last year’s two love letters to the early years of cinema, by all means go see Hugo instead.

 

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