Love is sweeping the country. They’re calling it “charming, vivacious, endearing, delightful, a sure fire hit.” It’s garnering nominations like roses in May. They’re writing songs of love about “The Artist,” that Gallic- infused, made-in-the- USA, singing, dancing, lyrical homage to the era of silent films.
The top pundits and scurrying shills are all on fire about it. Not everyone is buying the hype. As Hollywood agent and writer Jillana Devine tweeted, “I liked it better when it was ‘Singin in the Rain.’ What is this but Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds and the dog as Donald O’Connor?” You may share that view, but it won’t matter.
I want to put it like this: “The Artist” then, is the tender, sweet story of a tiny Jack Russell Terrier named Uggie, who gets caught up in the whacky whirlwind of 1920’s Hollywood. Uggie, a sure fire scene stealer, steals scenes like a pro. W.C Fields would have hated him. You’ll adore him.
Okay, I’m kidding, but I loved the dog so much, I couldn’t resist. “The Artist” is simply the story of big silent screen star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and his trip to the moon on gossamer wings and back down again. We meet Valentin at his peak, when two disasters come out of nowhere to threaten his future: the arrival of Peppy Miller (Bernice Bejo) a whacky, bubbly new singing and dancing sensation, and the advent of talking pictures.
Despite a Newt Gingrich-sized ego, Valentin is a heart-of-gold kinda guy, who has no fear of the luster of Peppy or of scene-stealing Uggie. He takes the dog everywhere with him, and folds the starlet under his wing. He gives her camera tips and a fake beauty mark, guiding her to stardom and then (up the violins) falls in love.
Alas, it is not to be. We hold no hopes for a happy ending because, as Valentin couldn’t possibly know, we’ve been here and done this. We’re way ahead of him and the story because we saw Frederic March, whom Dujardin strongly resembles, play this part with Janet Gaynor in the 1937 film “A Star is Born.” We saw Judy Garland and James Mason in the much better re-make in 1954.
Yet “The Artist” is more of a sweet confection, a glass of bubbly memories. It’s a pastiche of the work of golden-era swashbucklers like Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert, who thrilled the long dead with daring feats of swordplay, drape swinging, trellis climbing and silent mugging. Go ahead, Google them. It’s okay.
Like those long-ago icons, George Valentin skids into the famous brick wall called the “Jazz Singer,” that great Al Jolson talkie that brought the curtain crashing down on silent films. Now, as the sound of his swordsman boots clump to the bottom, the soft patter of Peppy’s tap shoes and slippers ascend. Add deep cello tones here.
The end comes quickly. George’s wife leaves him, the studio pink slips him, and the Great Depression rears its ugly head. George, in true cinema fashion, finds solace in the bottle while Uggie gets by on cheaper dog food.
George paddles hard to stay afloat, sinking his dwindling fortune in one last silent feature, but America’s fickle heart belongs to Peppy now.
The film grows darker as George is down to his last shot glass and Uggie, to his last bone. Hold your tears. There will be no walk into the sea in this sweet homage. Curtain up, light the lights, send in the roses, the clowns, the bareback riders and jugglers. Writer/director Hazanavicius isn’t aiming for your tear ducts, but the zinging of your heart strings. He wants you to walk on the sunny side of the street, holding your umbrella upside down to catch the pennies from heaven this movie will make.
Hazanavicius gives you a couple of surprises and a trailer full of talent and familiar faces. Let’s let them surprise you. But it’s Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo who tap dance into your hearts. Both stars, talented as they are, failed to completely win me over. Personally, I found them both to be just a teeny bit much, and the silence a bit annoying. They work very hard to sell their idea, and hard sells often wear thin. But Hollywood’s street-corner newsboys are shouting the big questions. Will these wonderful new kids on the block become the new American sweethearts? Will black and white silents be the new rage? Will Uggie take his place along side Toto, Lassie and Pluto? It’s Oscar time. Do you know where your vote is?
J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.