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The case against ‘The Artist’

"The Artist," which won the Academy Award for Best Picture on Sunday night, has received extravagant praise since its debut in Cannes last May, and it's easy to see why: it's as charming as any romcom, yet its central idea and craftsmanship are unique in today's cinema. A silent film about Hollywood's silent era, it's enlivened by the power of movie-love, so that, to its fans, its tropes seem classic, not cliché. Its love story, in which an up-and-coming actress falls for a 1920s superstar unable to make the transition to the talkies, has delighted audiences everywhere.

Unfortunately, there may be no better way to un-delight them than by winning the Best Picture Oscar, an honor that tends to cast films into history's "overrated" bin, "Casablanca" and "The Godfather" notwithstanding. Last year, "The King's Speech," which told an affecting story with skill and feeling, managed to transform itself, in the very moment it defeated its sharper, timelier competitor "The Social Network" at the Kodak Theatre, into a movie I now sort of loathe.

"The Artist," an amusing flick that, however, is only about as substantial as a bag of popcorn, beat "The Tree of Life." Like 2011's winner, it seems too unadventurous to deserve the crown.

Many critics have noted that, despite its lack of spoken dialogue, "The Artist" manages to please moviegoers of all kinds - not only those old enough to have seen "City Lights" (or at least "Silent Movie") in theaters, but those scarcely aware that the silent era even existed. In fact, it may appeal more to the latter group, which is a nice way of saying that director, Michel Hazanavicius, isn't exactly a stickler for period accuracy.

"The Artist" is said to be inspired by the silent melodramas of the 1920s, but it has none of the unearthly poetry of a movie like "Sunrise." In fact, it plays more like a comedy for most of its running time - though not the slapstick comedies of Chaplin or Keaton. It has more in common with the urbane drollery of Lubitsch and Wilder, or even of "Midnight in Paris."

I hesitate to complain about this because I'm not, in truth, much of a fan of silent cinema, and I believe that "The Artist" possibly would have been less amusing had it stayed closer to the traditions of the form. But it would have drawn more powerfully from the well of cinema's past, and it would have channeled from it something deeper and truer than it does. Guy Maddin's boring, almost-silent films are more admirable to me. "The Artist" is film history for those movie-lovers to whom all the black-and-white films, from "The Great Train Robbery" to "The Apartment," belong to the same jumbled era: an endless stretch of mustachioed matinee idols, gowned women, and tap dancing.

Even the movies to which "The Artist" alludes more specifically - like "Vertigo," whose Bernard Herrmann score it controversially borrows - are actually talkies. Its plot recalls "Singin' in the Rain," "Sunset Blvd.," and most of all "A Star Is Born," from which it basically cribs its whole storyline, except that (spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph!) in William Wellman's "A Star is Born" the falling male star succeeds in committing suicide, instead of seeing his career rejuvenated after an aborted attempt.

Here, as in many spots, "The Artist" goes for cuteness instead of poignancy, and this time the cuteness is really in poor taste: with a gun pointed at Jean Dujardin's head, you see a "Bang!" intertitle, followed by a cut to Bérénice Bejo, his rescuer, who has crashed her car (without injury) outside his house. Ha, ha, you thought he'd shot himself! Ha?

More than its visual style, the triteness of its script is what makes "The Artist" a disappointment to me. It's lazy not only in small ways - as with the protagonist's wife, whose only job is to be unpleasant - but in its overall concept. By now, the early Hollywood star left behind by the advent of talkies is almost a stock character. If you want to make an homage to silent movies, why not make a movie about their birth, rather than another one about their death? Hollywood in its infancy must have been a fascinating place: a Western boomtown where businessmen, gangsters, vaudevillians, cowboys, writers, and craftsmen together created a new city, a new industry, and a new art form. If a movie about this place exists, I've not yet found it. Meanwhile, "A Star is Born" has already been made three times (not counting Hazanavicius's version or even 1932's "What Price Hollywood," which allegedly inspired the 1937 "original"), and an additional remake, starring Beyoncé, is planned for next year.

"The Artist" has some nice bits - the nightmare sequence is genuinely unnerving, and the scene where Bejo is fooling around with the man's coat is pretty lovely - and its stars (particularly its canine star) all shine appropriately, but the movie on the whole is a trifle, and not expert or creative enough to be a top-level trifle. Hollywood predictably adores it, not only because Hollywood is self-obsessed (and doubtless appreciates Hazanavicius's slightly Disneyish presentation of the flagrantly dissolute Pre-Code Tinseltown), but because, like most Best Picture winners, it's easy and familiar beneath a guise of aesthetic seriousness.

Despite its title, it's not art but pure entertainment - which, come to think of it, may be the greatest Hollywood tribute of all.

Tagged: Gen Y, The Artist