Thursday, February 23, 2012

Best Picture: "The Artist"

With just a few days left before Oscar's big night, I've decided to review two nominees for Best Picture that I haven't blogged about yet: The Artist and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. A quick recap of what I think about the other nominees: Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life and War Horse all made my best of the year list. The Descendants is arguably the year's most overrated film; with Sideways and now this, director Alexander Payne seems to be making movies that appeal primarily to middle-aged movie critics. And while I wouldn't mind seeing Viola Davis or even Octavia Spencer take home the gold, I found The Help to be a problematic portrait of the civil rights era; you can read about said problems in my review.

In my next post I'll let you know what I think about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. This time I'll be reviewing Michel Hazanavicius' silent romantic dramedy, The Artist. This is the year's frontrunner, and after finally seeing it I have no idea why. (Okay, I have a hunch; I'll get to that in a minute.) People I respect really love this film, and that combined with its reputation makes me want to revisit it to see if I can figure out what all the fuss was about. My impression right now is that this is a very minor film. It tells a story that's been told before (and with a lot more wit than Hazanavicius can muster).

Best Actor nominee Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a movie star whose refusal to make the leap from silent pictures to talkies leads to his ruin. George's downfall is contrasted with the rise of Peppy Miller (Supporting Actress nominee Berenice Bejo), a dancer whose killer moves send her shooting to the top in the earliest days of talkies. Djujardin and Bejo are both faultless, and indeed the movie is splendidly cast across the board. It was particularly nice to see Joel Murray (from One Crazy Summer) and Penelope Ann Miller, even though she appears in a thankless role. Hazanavicius has chosen performers with very expressive faces, so that the beats in each scene are always clear without the actors reading any lines.

That's not to say the movie doesn't have any dialogue. It crops up sporadically in the form of intertitles, providing what is perhaps the film's most moving moment: When a despondent George says of his beloved doggy/co-star, "If only he could talk." As the intertitles indicate, The Artist plays by the rules of an earlier era of filmmaking, which explains why there's not a whole lot of cutting in the dance and action scenes. Forced to think in strictly visual terms, Hazanavicius comes up with some real beauties. I'm especially fond of the scene where George and Peppy meet on a stairway; he's on the way down while she's on the way up, which is nice way of showing what's going on in the story.

Still, for a movie that's often described as a nonstop charmer, I found much of The Artist to be depressing. George spends much of the time moping around and pining for his glory days. I think the reason the film has failed to ignite at the box office has less to do with its silent method and more to do with Hazanavicius' failure to give us an endearing hero to root for. The story of the washed-up showbiz figure has been told countless times before – and in much more engaging fashion. Just look at the average Krusty the Klown episode of The Simpsons (especially "Krusty Gets Kancelled" and "The Last Temptation of Krust"), or Tim Burton's treatment of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.

Burton’s Ed Wood shames this movie on all levels: as comedy, as period piece, as an emotional human story. Most of all, it shames The Artist on a technical level. Burton’s mid-‘90s masterpiece was a loving, visually impeccable tribute to Z-grade genre filmmaking. Hazanavicius doesn’t approach his material with the same sort of seriousness or panache. For example, he shot The Artist in color and converted it to black-and-white in post. When he employs silent movie techniques, it’s like he’s winking at the audience, as if to say, “Look at this cute thing we’re doing.” The entire movie is like Uggie the dog: It’s being cute for a gag.

So why is this featherweight film considered a lock for Best Picture? The answer starts with Harvey and ends with Weinstein. Back in the '90s, the movie mogul mastered the art of Oscar campaigning, so that whatever prestige picture Miramax had just released became, in the minds of voters, the crossword puzzle answer to, "What was the best film of the year?" I'll love him forever for championing filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Anthony Minghella, but Harvey seems to be up to his old tricks again. The Artist is not without its charms, but if it wins big on Sunday night it'll go down as the most eye-rolling choice since Paul Haggis' Crash.

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