“The Artist” – a silent movie with a lot to say

So this reporter asks a hot-shot movie actor a question at the premier of his latest big feature. The actor, quite a charismatic fellow, happily replies. Everyone laughs.

A question: Does it matter what either of them said?

“The Artist” is an award-season release destined for glory (or at least near-glory) at the Oscars. But it is not a big movie. It’s all in black-and-white. With two brief and notable exceptions, the entire flick is devoid of any sound besides an orchestra.

Don’t let any of that stop you. “The Artist” may be silent, but it’s also a lot of fun.

Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a big picture star of the 1920s terrified by the encroaching switch from silent films to talkies. He meets a beautiful woman (Berenice Bejo) who is young and talented and steals all his thunder, movie-wise.

Valentin is trailed everywhere by the movie’s coolest character, a Jack Russell (played by Uggie). Uggie steals this movie. He does the “Bang, you’re dead” trick better than any dog I’ve ever seen.

Valentin feels his fame slipping away, though he still loves making movies. The studios are shunning him, so he makes a flick himself, in which he and Uggie and some babe are on an island somewhere. That movie ends with him getting swallowed into quicksand. (“Farewell, Norma. I never loved you.”)

There’s a big fire and some high drama and John Goodman plays a producer. It all stays very PG. There aren’t really any bad guys, and there are some fun comic moments, mostly involving the dog.

What’s most remarkable about this movie, though, is the way you’ll react to it. I didn’t miss hearing what the characters had to say. If something was crucial to know, a card would come up and to tell you what was said, like “Farewell, Norma. I never loved you.” Or “I wish it wasn’t like this, but the public wants fresh meat and the public is never wrong.”

Those cards don’t come up very often, and it’s still so easy to follow.

A lot of people won’t go see “The Artist” because of how it looks and sounds. But there are big, interesting issues being tackled here. Anyone who has ever felt left behind – like a newspaper reporter, to just pick an example off the top of my head – will relate to what it’s saying about stubbornness and acceptance and how artists are meant to fit into the world.

And anyone who wonders sometimes whether there’s too much talking in this world (just turn on the news) will find something to grasp in “The Artist” as well. I enjoyed it as an entertainment (really) but I liked it more as a commentary on our modern media culture, where what people say is so often more important than what they do. Sometimes people should shut up and enjoy the world for what it is.

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