Monday, January 2, 2012

The Artist

Grade: 58 (B-)

It’s been a banner year for nostalgia, hasn’t it? From Martin Scorsese to Woody Allen, filmmakers have been looking to the past for a certain place in time they found particularly magical. Both Hugo and Midnight in Paris are deeply flawed films: the former is often too artificial and stiff, the latter exhibits too many of its director’s flaws, and both are far too mannered. If one has an advantage, it’s that Hugo is less annoyingly self-satisfied with itself and far more ambitious; “rinky-dink” was a term that applied to Midnight in Paris, and it applies largely to Michael Hazanavicius’s silent-film pastiche The Artist.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent-film star, a Charlie Chaplin or Rudolph Valentino of his world, with an adorably loyal dog sidekick to boot (Uggie). He is at the height of his stardom. One day he bumps into aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), and the two have an undeniable spark. Her star rises as talking pictures come into fashion; Valentin’s fall, as he refuses to adapt to the times. Soon, he’s a broken-down, self-pitying drunk while Miller is the biggest star in the nation. She never forgets him, however, and helps him get back on track to the top.

Like Midnight in Paris, the film has two major assets in Dujardin and Bejo, both of whom look like classic film stars. Dujardin, with his charming Clark Gable-style grin and boundless energy, makes the film’s early going a warm-hearted and funny ride, while the stunningly beautiful and delightful Bejo gets the film’s best moment in a sweet scene in which Miller plays with Valentin’s suit-jacket, pretending the star has his arms around her. The two have approached the project with great enthusiasm, and it’s clear everyone is having fun making the film (they had previously collaborated in Hazanvicius’s OSS 117 spy spoofs, and Bejo and Hazanavicius are married). For a while, it’s a deeply ingratiating experience.

The film’s charm wears off, however, when Dujardin hits rock bottom; none of the scenes have the emotional resonance of a Charlie Chaplin film. That’s an awfully big artist to compare it to, but it’d be less of a problem if the film felt like something beyond imitation; has the look and style right, but the film never goes beyond pastiche. The great silent film comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were also uproariously funny, where The Artist is a merely pleasant affair, smile-inducing more than anything else. The production and energy is enough to carry it past the goal line, but ultimately there’s not a lot to chew on here.

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