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Review: The Artist (***)

As a classic movie and silent film enthusiast, I felt it was my duty to go on and watch this similarly styled film.  Knowing from interviews of Director Michel Hazanavicius that The Artist was filled with nods to classics like Singin' in the Rain and Citizen Kane, I was hoping to be touched by this film as I had been touched by its predecessors.  

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the height of his popularity in 1927 Hollywood.  Applauded both on the screen in his action films, and in front of the audience thanks to his dancing skills and pet dog's tricks, Valentin barely misses a beat when an adoring fan slips between the policeman barrier and bumps into him outside of a premiere.  Why not enjoy a few laughs and poses with this pretty young lady?

Valentin's wife (Penelope Ann Miller) doesn't seem to agree with that sentiment the next morning, however.  Sour-faced and jealous, she paints a portrait of Valentin's life at home that sharply contrasts his carefree life as a movie star.  Valentin's home life also shows a lackadaisical attitude on the part of Valentin towards his wife, taking more interest in his dog, and his life-size portrait at the foot of the stairs than her scowl or questions.

Meanwhile, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), an aspiring extra fresh off the front page from her accidental photo shoot with Valentim, takes her confidence to the casting call for chorus girls.  Her confidence pays off, and she's hired to work as an extra dancer on the next-- you guess it-- Valetin picture.  When Valentin and Miller meet by chance again, their instantaneous chemistry sparks off the screen once more.

But if the movie were as simple as all that, where would the drama be?  The coming of sound pictures acts as the catalyst for drama, and the reactions by Valentin and Miller couldn't be more different.  Out with the old and in with the new, John Goodman's movie honcho Al Zimmer says to Valentin after Valentin makes it clear that he's an actor for the silent screen only, and that talking pictures are just a fad.  Peppy Miller, on the other hand, is a rising starlet in the talking pictures screen, thanks in part to the beauty spot that Valentin painted on her face.  The coming of talking pictures leads them down different paths, and their changing fortunes are simultaneously contrasted over several years.  Ultimately, though,Valentin and Miller's fates are intertwined.

This is a quaint film, earnestly acted by all parties involved (and, for the most part not overacted, as one might have heard about the art of silent film in the past).  I thought James Cromwell was wonderful  as the understated supporting character Clifton, Valentin's chauffeur, especially compared to John Goodman's Sylvester Macaroni-like performance.  Uggie the Dog was in a league of his own--I'm almost positive that the majority of the Oscar buzz is because he's so adorable in the movie.
The cinematography is quite pretty, and mimic the style of films from the 1920s for the most part.  Like the silent films, the amount of placard dialogue is kept to a minimum, although it's occasionally used to increase dramatic effect.  Though primarily a drama, The Artist does have its comedic moments as well, relying on the use of sight gags--mostly with the pup--and assisted by the excellent rhythmic timing of the score.

In all of its ambitions to pay tribute to classic Hollywood, however, The Artist still comes off feeling a little hollow for it.  Don't get me wrong, the sincerity of all those involved to make the film is apparent and plentiful.  The basic material that the film is presenting-- pride before the fall, love, jealousy, gratitude, inadequacy-- are on their own timeless.  It is simply that these themes and the performances that channel these emotions are presented as secondary to the technical aspects of this film.  All the sincerity in the world cannot help out a film when it is constructed to use a style more than to tell the story.  

As much as I wanted to love this film, I ended up being underwhelmed instead.  It could be that I expected too much, but the Oscar buzz that is being generated by The Artist seems to affirm my original hopes.  Perhaps I'm just in the minority of viewers who sees the film and longs for a classic silent film  in place of a novelty item that takes from better movies.  Don't take that to mean that doesn't mean The Artist's lack of creativity costs the movie its entertaining qualities.  It's an enjoyable piece of Oscar-bait.  I just wish I hadn't gotten the bait-and-switch.


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