In the silent-era throwback “The Artist,” Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a tall, dark and handsome, swashbuckling, girl-getting, last-minute-saving matinee idol. With his confident, toothy smile, jet-black hair and excellent profile, he seems intended to come across somewhere between Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore. But ironically, the classic movie star Dujardin bears more of a resemblance to Gene Kelly, who made another film about the sound transition you might have heard of — “Singin’ in the Rain,” from 1952.
Now, you might think it unfair to compare the two, but “The Artist” was up for 10 Academy Awards this year (copping five, including best picture). “Singin’ in the Rain” was nominated for two back in 1953 (one for best supporting actress and the other for best original music score; it won neither). History will judge which got the fair shake, but “Singin’ in the Rain” was up against such films as “High Noon,” “The Quiet Man,” “The Bad and the Beautiful” and Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Just to name a few.
“The Artist’s” main competition is “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s alternately charming and weird, two-hour-plus family epic, which received 11 nominations. Neither is a bad picture, but are they Academy Award worthy? As in best picture? It’s worth noting that both of these are nostalgia pieces about cinema’s past, and their competition, save for “The Tree of Life,” was not very formidable. (“Moneyball”? “The Help”?) They also share the commonality of being much stronger in the spectacle and heartwarming departments than they are in story, character and ideas.
As far as ideas go, “The Artist” has one: It’s a silent movie in 2011 and 2012. On this it hangs the plight of George, who finds himself suddenly box-office unfriendly with the arrival of sound, a development he cannot for some reason cope with. It’s 1927, the year traditionally seen as the beginning of the talkie. George, like many actual movie men of the day, laughs off the new technological development as a passing fad, to his own peril, his one last silent picture a flop. The coinciding stock market crash (the realistic passage of time isn’t one of the film’s strong points) spells his doom.
OK, one and a half ideas. As George falls, up vaults a Hollywood newcomer, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who adores her idol even as she insults him during her rise in the talkies. The situation adds some romance melodrama, if not actual tension, to the plot, but beyond that complication the surface-level story of one new star rising and one old one falling is as far and deep as “The Artist” is willing to go. Just about everything else in the movie involves cute asides with George’s loveable terrier.
Yet, “where ‘The Artist’ is willing to go” has taken it a long way, from Cannes to Oscar glory. Its main distinction, I think, is its novelty, which covers a thin and confusing story that doesn’t try all that hard to re-create the past it professes to revel in.
Although film buffs will notice a few nods to famous silent era pictures and conventions, there are fewer than you might expect. The movie’s years, 1927 to 1931, were as artistically significant as they were tumultuous and fraught with frightening uncertainty. And yet that real historical drama is barely acknowledged, and only in a frivolous manner. Why doesn’t George want to partake in the transition? Why wouldn’t he or his handlers want him to speak, like Barrymore successfully did, unless his voice wasn’t up to it?
We only find out at the very end why George won’t speak, an amusing yet unconvincing reason that doesn’t explain everything. For most of the movie George doesn’t seem to understand sound at all. It’s as if he not only makes silent pictures, but lives in one — the one we are watching. That makes it difficult if not downright silly when “The Artist” switches gears to show Peppy’s rise in sound — with more silence. True, the movie is intended as lighthearted comedy, but it’s boxed itself into an unfunny corner, a silent film about being a silent film rather than about silent films. So when it needs to say something about silent films, and sound ones — and there are times when it does and wants to — it really can’t. “The Artist” is a cute, inoffensive diversion, but too silent, in substance at least, to be much more. (PG-13) 100 min.