In the spirit of Michel Hazanavicius' extraordinary silent-film celebration The Artist, I considered offering a review that, likewise, didn't offer much in the way of verbal language - just a smiley-face emoticon in the biggest font possible. And after two viewings (so far) of this intimate yet grandly ambitious comedy, I'm still not sure that a review filled with actual words will offer a more thorough expression of the rapturous pleasure it fills me with; upon leaving Hazanavicius' exhilarating experiment in black and white, both times, I haven't felt the urge to talk about it so much as sit back and reflect on it with a huge grin plastered to my face.
Set during a Hollywood premiere in 1927, the first scene in The Artist finds matinée idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) appearing in the film-within-the-film A Russian Affair, his on-screen adventurer being electrocuted by diabolical Russians while Valentin, through a title card, shouts, "I won't talk! I won't say a word!" It's hard to imagine any movie opening with a better joke. An immediate, comedic nod to Hazanavicius' silent-film aspirations here and a pretty fair summation of The Artist's entire plot - in which Valentin haughtily refuses to adjust to the world of talkies (personified by Bérénice Bejo's sprightly ingenue Peppy Miller) and slowly but surely pays the price - this beautifully multi-layered line starts the proceedings with a high-comic, and literal, jolt. Yet for the next hour and a half, you're treated to no end of visual delights and clever compositions and narrative surprises (including a few aural ones) that more than match it. In his rather astonishing balancing act between satirical ribbing and sincere homage, Hazanavicius appears to be having a ball with his sound-free conceit; the gag that finds the writer/director momentarily halting composer Ludovic Bource's divine, nearly ceaseless background music for the silent image of an audience's feverish applause is particularly satisfying. The Artist, though, is less a spoof of old Hollywood than a thunderously well-crafted, impeccably designed deconstruction of the pre-sound era in cinema, and an absolutely honest attempt at replicating its magic.
Putting it mildly, the attempt succeeds. To be sure, it probably wouldn't have without a star as fantastically charismatic as Dujardin, whose exceptional handsomeness and silent-era suavity almost blind you to his comic precision, effortless dramatic chops, and glorious dance skills. (Almost.) And The Artist wouldn't be half the entertainment it is without the contributions of the radiantly expressive Bejo, and the perfectly cast John Goodman as a cigar-chomping studio boss, and the Jack Russell terrier named Uggie who pulls off routines of perhaps unprecedented adorableness. (Uggie's Lassie-esque show-stopper, in which he helps save a man from a burning building, is alone worth the movie's ticket price.) Yet in the end, it's Hazanavicius' exquisite approximation of, and obvious love for, the tenets of silent classics - with their joyful humor and sweeping romance and grand emotionalism - that knocks you out again and again. In case you hadn't heard, The Artist is the prohibitive favorite for this year's Best Picture Oscar, but don't feel that you should see the movie out of any sense of obligation. See it because it's just so much freaking fun.