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Was 'The Artist' worthy of the hype?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

We've all gone through it at one time or another: there's a sensory experience we haven't had, but one we're anticipating -- a piece of music, a work of art, an elaborate meal -- and the praise for it has been so effusive, we can't avoid getting caught up in the clamor. And the longer we wait for it, the more its legend grows in our minds -- not just good, but truly great; not merely great, but extraordinary.

So what happens when that experience isn't extraordinary? What if it is just a very good piece of work from some obviously talented people?

I bring this up because I finally saw "The Artist" this past weekend, thanks to the movie's recent DVD and Blu-ray release. It's a movie that love-love-loves movies, especially those made in Old Hollywood. It also has the -- now-infamous -- audacity to be a silent black-and-white film in a world where Technicolor and Dolby Surround are ubiquitous. After so much attention and acclaim internationally -- including winning the Academy Award for Best Picture earlier this year -- I was fairly outspoken in my desire to experience the film first hand.

After the credits had rolled, however, a small part of me couldn't help feeling a small, but real, disappointment. As much as I was impressed by the work done by the people who made "The Artist," and as much as I wanted to wholeheartedly embrace the film, there was something about it that kept me at a distance.

This isn't to say the film isn't a worthwhile experience; indeed, there's much to recommend it.

The movie opens in 1927, as the end of the silent film era is rapidly approaching. George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) is at the peak of his career, drawing cheering crowds to his romantic onscreen adventures, and believing that his ride is nowhere near its end.

At the premiere of his latest triumph, he meets an autograph-seeking ingenue named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) who charms him with her spirit -- and plants a kiss on his cheek. That kiss puts her on the map, so to speak, and soon she's being cast as an extra in Valentin's next movie. After her day's work is done, she sneaks into his dressing room to leave him a note, where he finds her again.

Instead of raging at her -- or worse, taking advantage of her infatuation -- he is kind, and offers her career advice in the form of a penciled-in beauty mark. You need to have something the other girls don't, he says to her.

The advice takes hold in her. Soon, Miller's star is on the rise, as she works her way from bit parts to sizable supporting roles.

But Valentin's career is about to suddenly lose steam. During the filming of his latest swashbuckler, he is asked by the studio head (John Goodman) to come to an executive screening of a sound film test. This is the future, the disbelieving actor is told. Valentin is defiant; he wants no part of these "talking pictures."

His denial can't protect him. Eventually, he is out of the studio, and using much of his accrued wealth financing his own major silent film in an attempt to prove that his presence -- and not his voice -- is the reason for his success.

Meanwhile, Miller's career is flourishing, in large part thanks to her embrace of the new technology. People who loved her in the silent films are enthralled by the sound of her voice.

The careers of Valentin and Miller collide again in 1929, when their latest films debut in neighboring theaters. Valentin watches sadly as his silent adventure premieres to a nearly empty house, while Miller's "talkie" unspools before a clamoring crowd. What the depressed Valentin doesn't know is that the young actress has taken a seat in the theater, and watched his story play to a sad end.

Valentin, once unflappable, is now thoroughly beaten. His pride-fueled descent leads him to lonely, fearful places, and Miller, who has nursed a deep affection for him over the years, eventually cannot stand idly by and watch him destroy himself.

From my brief description of the film's events, "The Artist" sounds like a melodrama in the vein of "A Star is Born," and it is, with all that entails. I guess that's my problem with it.

I must have imagined that "The Artist" was more transportive than it ended up being. While the black-and-white cinematography is evocative and having the actors speak dialogue we don't hear is a bold choice, there's a strange distance in the script, as if writer-director Michel Hazanavicius decided to make a Cliff's Notes version of his favorite scenes from the Old Hollywood movies he loves.

What makes "The Artist" worth seeing are the truly fine performances. Dujardin (who ended up taking home a Best Actor Oscar for his work) is a magnetic presence as Valentin, while Berenice Bejo is luminous as Miller. And while they're good apart, they're even better together. The supporting cast, featuring the previously mentioned John Goodman, as well as James Cromwell -- as Valentin's chauffeur and confidant -- and a charming dog named Uggie, also deserves note.

"The Artist" is not a game-changing motion picture event, even though the critical gush about it in late 2011 would have made it seem so. Am I disappointed that the movie isn't a great one? Without a doubt. But it is a good film, with good performances, and if I'm being honest with myself, that's more than good enough for me. Three stars (out of four).

Content advisory: "The Artist" is rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture. The disturbing image in question likely involves a suicidal Valentin and a revolver, although an earlier scene where he tries to destroy his store of films could also count as such. As for the crude gesture, if you can't guess what it is, you've never cut someone off in traffic.

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Jeremy Blomstedt
The Entertainment Center