Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist manages the trick of being both fearlessly loyal to an era of cinema that's long since passed and one of the few original motion pictures of its own time.
The movie stars Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the silent era. Although he's stuck in a less-than-passionate marriage, he's lucky enough to be surrounded by adoring fans, a loyal assistant (James Cromwell), and his devoted pet dog. George soon makes the acquaintance of aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and eventually they shoot a short scene together for his new movie. But then Al Jolson makes The Jazz Singer, and seemingly overnight George can't land a role, while Peppy Miller becomes the toast of Tinseltown. In desperation, George sinks his personal savings into a grand adventure story that he believes will win back the audiences who have abandoned him.
What sets The Artist apart from other showbiz rise-and-fall stories is that Hazanavicius, in honor of his main character, chose to shoot the film in black-and-white and without dialogue. Those idiosyncrasies will keep a great many moviegoers from thinking they'll want to see it, but it would be their loss, because for its first 45 minutes The Artist is a giddy, deliriously enjoyable cinematic experience. The jokes are fashioned to play to a modern audience, even if the techniques employed are as old-school as can be. Even the revelation early on that this will be a genuinely silent film comes in the form of a first-rate gag about performers waiting for an audience to erupt with applause. If there was ever a movie without a single line of spoken dialogue that could get nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, The Artist is it.
The writing isn't the only award-worthy aspect of the movie. Dujardin won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his work here, and it's a rich, star-making turn. Flamboyant yet grounded, funny yet moving, charming yet vulnerable, Dujardin turns George into a good man befuddled by how quickly his comfortable existence slips away from him. The second half of the movie, when George struggles professionally and romantically, doesn't have the same comedic rush of the first half, but even as the film grows slightly repetitive, Dujardin carries things along with his boundless charm -- nobody's worn a Clark Gable moustache with this much panache since, well, Clark Gable.
Tonally, the movie is just about flawless: Everybody is on the same comedic page, and one of the great joys of watching the film is seeing Hazanavicius' distinctive vision come to life with the help of inventive actors who all seem to know exactly how to modulate their performances. John Goodman plays the head of the movie studio, and his ample bulk is used to brilliant comedic effect (especially when he gets upset).
The movie does bog down slightly when it grows more dramatic, a fact that might have as much to do with how amazingly perfect the beginning of the movie is as it does with any particular faults about the more serious passages. It might be that movie lovers still return to the great silent comedians -- Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd -- because there's something about their dialogue-free tomfoolery that transcends time and cultural changes. The same can't be said for the vast majority of dramas from that period. Sure, Sunrise and Intolerance are landmarks in the medium's development, but they don't hold the same kind of power over seasoned cinephiles as The Tramp and The Great Stone Face still do.
But the second half of the movie also contains a brilliant comedic set piece involving George's pooch performing an act of bravery - it's a tremendous piece of "acting" from the little four-legged scene stealer. And the final scene delivers a payoff that makes you appreciate how well-thought-out the entire film has been from the very first frame.
The Artist is great because it's funny, not because it requires any knowledge of film history to understand or because it breathes new life into a seemingly stale style. It's just a movie that's in love with movies, and if it doesn't put a smile on your face, then maybe you don't love them as much as you think you do.