A silent movie, in black and white, with a pair of lead actors unknown to U.S. audiences? Yes, this accurately describes “The Artist.”
One other detail: This movie happens to be an anointed front-runner in the Oscar race, despite its apparent uphill battle.
I’m not sure about significant Oscar triumphs, but “The Artist” is certainly a warm, audience-friendly movie, assuming said audience will sit still for a picture without dialogue.
It’s the brainchild of director Michel Hazanavicius and actor Jean Dujardin, who previously collaborated on the uproarious “OSS 117” spy spoofs in their native France.
In “The Artist,” Dujardin plays the lead role, an incorrigibly hammy movie star of the silent era named George Valentin. A breezy performer out of the Douglas Fairbanks mold, Valentin finds his popularity shaken when sound pictures come in.
At his peak, he befriends a spunky nobody, a big-eyed gamine named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). In true “Star is Born” fashion, his fame declines while her career begins to rise, setting the stage for a poignant final act that seems to come right out of a silent-era melodrama.
The whole film is straightforward, almost to a fault: Hazanavicius traces a predictable storyline, and the ups and downs feel pre-ordained.
The novelty, of course, comes in the fun of watching how all this is worked out as a silent movie (though not really silent at all, given Ludovic Bourse’s hard-working musical score). The movie’s full of little visual gags that lift up individual scenes, including a dog that proves just as big a ham as his master.
Jean Dujardin is the movie’s main source of delight. Born with a movie star’s quick grin, which is crowned here with a dapper 1920s mustache, Dujardin has the kind of expressive face that would’ve served him very well in the silent era (many of his biggest laughs in the “OSS 117” films, in which he played the world’s most idiotic Cold War spy, came purely from his blissfully clueless facial expressions).
He also shows off some quick-footed dancing skills, another of the film’s unexpected pleasures. Although Berenice Bejo comes across charmingly, and there are other actors filling out the supporting roles (John Goodman and Penelope Ann Miller included), Dujardin’s star turn carries the movie.
Is “The Artist” really an Oscar contender? It came up short on that score for me. But don’t be shocked if Jean Dujardin steps up to a few podiums during awards season: He’s that good.
“The Artist” (3 stars)
A black-and-white movie rendered as a throwback to the silent era, this audience-friendly picture paints a well-worn tale of a famous movie star (Jean Dujardin) whose career wobbles when sound comes to movies in the 1920s. The story is old, but Dujardin’s star turn is a delight to watch, and director Michel Hazanavicius invents enough gags to put it over.
Rated: PG-13 for subject matter.
Showing: Call theater for show times; theater list on Page E2.