The definitive look at the transition from silent films to talkies arrived courtesy of the 1952 musical Singin' in the Rain. The story about a talented nobody becoming an overnight success while an established performer simultaneously suffers a career crash'n'burn has been filmed ad nauseam, most recognizably in the various screen incarnations of A Star Is Born.
And, unless one counts Charlie Chaplin's gibberish song in 1936's Modern Times, the employment of sound in an otherwise silent picture found its high-water mark in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie, in which the only word heard throughout the course of the film ("Non!") is uttered by legendary mime Marcel Marceau.
In short, The Artist isn't exactly the most original movie to make its way into modern-day theaters, despite its angle of being a black-and-white silent picture. But so what? Although it sometimes runs short on invention, it makes up for it in style, execution and a cheery disposition that's positively infectious.
Jean Dujardin, best known on these shores (if at all) for the pair of OSS 117 spy spoofs he made with director Michael Hazanavicius in their French homeland, plays silent screen star George Valentin, whose chance encounter with a young fan named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) contributes to her eventual rise in the industry. The pair clearly harbor feelings for each other, but George finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage (Penelope Ann Miller sympathetically plays his estranged spouse) and relies on his dog Uggie and his faithful chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) for companionship.
The matrimonial strife soon takes a back seat to a dark development, revealed when studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) informs him about the inevitable advent of sound in motion pictures - a revolution that George myopically dismisses as a short-lived fad. Instead, this cinematic breakthrough all but destroys his livelihood.
In crafting his homage to the silent era, Hazanavicius crucially fails to include one of its key ingredients, that go-for-broke dynamism that informed much of the cinema of the time - think, for example, of that house really falling on top of Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd's eye-popping stunts in Safety Last! and other gems, or just about anything served up by Chaplin. Nothing in The Artist can quite showcase that sort of edgy genius, although a sequence that has wicked fun with sound effects is worth singling out.
Yet while it may not match up with the best of the silents, The Artist matches up nicely with the best of 2011. Dujardin and Bejo are both enchanting and irresistible, and Hazanavicius' screenplay has no trouble shifting between mirth and melodrama.
As for its visual appeal, the black-and-white images are as crisp and dynamic as anything on view in the year's color explosions.