Welcome to movie-awards season. If Christmas is a time for generosity and love, the season now upon us is the antidote, bringing an open display of vanity, envy, avarice and greed, served up with generous lashings of silk crepe and mutual self-congratulation. Is there a time that Hollywood is ever more thoroughly its frothing, pestilent self than in the lead-up to the Oscars?
But in order to have a credible awards show, there is also the pesky issue of competition. While Hollywood is naval-gazing by nature, it also instinctively acknowledges the need for an occasional outside opponent – preferably foreign, funny and unthreateningly fluffy – to justify its annual victory lap.
Enter The Artist.
Wait, let me guess. You saw it last weekend and you absolutely adored it. The dancing, the mugging, the old-timey feel. All of it was just so darn cute! And that dog – what a little firecracker he was, better than Lassie. A silent movie about the silent-movie era with silence as its "central theme." It doesn't get deeper than that, does it? Best of all, it's a film from France with no subtitles (although there are a few title cards), which means moviegoers can feel erudite without having to work too hard.
As you may have surmised, I'm not one of the growing legions who have been "transported" or "captivated" or even "pleasantly diverted for 100 minutes" by Michael Hazanavicius's tale of a silent-movie actor left in the dust by the arrival of talkies. Nor do I think, as half the critics in the free press seem to have asserted, that it deserves to win best picture at the Oscars, let alone all the BAFTAs, Golden Globes and film-festival awards it has already won. (I make an exception for the well-deserved Palm Dog that international critics awarded Uggie the terrier at Cannes.)
The Artist was a sweet little picture with a clever gimmick, but the characters lacked emotional veracity and the plot was predictable and precious. The 97-per-cent positive "tomatometer" rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, which aggregates critics' opinions, seems a bit much, especially when far more ambitious flicks such as Shame and The Descendants clock in only in the 80s.
So what's going on here?
The Artist isn't a dog of movie; it's just an exceptionally overrated one. And the reasons shine a light on much of what's wrong-headed and self-delusional about our culture of film appreciation, especially as Hollywood awards season kicks into high gear.
Nearly every year, for the past several years running, a film has emerged, usually in the run-up to the Oscars, that is leapt upon, first by the critical press, then by the sophisticated movie-going public, as the Alternate Choice to whatever star-studded, hotly anticipated Hollywood fare is on offer. (This year, The Descendants, J. Edgar and War Horse stick out.)
There's nothing wrong with an outside contender, but inevitably these films, which tend to be foreign, lower(ish)-budget and starring kooky, accented non-
Americans, attract more hype than they reasonably deserve.
Last year, we had the amicable The King's Speech – a movie that at least offered some insight into a significant historical figure, and featured a couple of great performances. But in years past, the role of Alternate Choice has been played by such truly slight films as Slumdog Millionaire, Amélie and Life Is Beautiful.
I'm not saying these movies were terrible – just that they weren't nearly as good as their attendant astronomical hype. Now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has expanded the number of potential nominees for best picture (from five to 10 in 2009; and as of this year, to anywhere between five and 10), more Alternate Choices are required to fill the slots. Hence, more fluff from afar.
I have no problem with films from elsewhere. As a Canadian, how could I? But I do have a problem with the cutesy, cuddly, heavy-on-style, light-on-content foreign fare that seems to win big, at the box office and the Oscars.
Would a dark and brooding character study such as Martha Mary May Marlene – about a woman's tenuous escape from a cult leader who specializes in rape – have a snowball's chance of getting nominated had it been set in Italy rather than New York State? What if Shame were about a Chinese sex addict, instead of one played by Michael Fassbender? I know I'm tossing out hypotheticals, but the point is: We tend to recoil from challenging foreign films and to overpraise slight ones, to the detriment of our cinematic culture as a whole.
After reading the reviews for The Artist, I thought I was in for a life-changing screen experience. What I got instead was an hour and a half of pep. I'm all for choice. But wouldn't it be nice for the Alternate Choice to subvert, rather than simply affirm, our expectations of what a good movie should be?
But awards season is upon us – and the die is cast. The Artist will sweep the Oscars. And then we'll forget all about it. Why? Because the emperor not only has no sound. He has no clothes, either.