I had seen both OSS117 films, fastidiously-created spoofs of James Bond films, both starring Jean Dujardin and both directed by Michel Hazanavicius as this film is. So I knew that Dujardin was handsome enough to handle the part of a hero in a silent role, and also had the ideal physical grace and comedic chops to do it all silently. The OSS117 films were also cinematic tributes to films of an earlier era, and were filmed using the same cameras and film stock as the originals, so I knew that when this team set out to make an homage, he would do it right. Only, after this film has been out a bit, it started to garner some backlash, people saying it was sentimental and hokey and above all slight, so that after awhile I lost interest in it, content to catch it later on video. But a friend wanted to see it, and we did and--faith restored--it turned out to be much better and more interesting than I had expected.
We open with old-style credits that show almost all the credits at the beginning of the film. Then we see Dujardin as a top-hatted masked crusader having some adventure, then we come out to see that this is a silent film, and we see the audience watching the film. We see the audience silently reacting to the derring-do on screen. So the point-of-view shifts very sharply and cannily in just the first few minutes. When the film ends, Dujardin as star George Valentin comes or to take his applause, and we see that he's a big ham--but of course Dujardin can make this effortlessly charming. Outside he runs into local woman Peppy Miller, who ends up in the papers in a photo with George. She soon parlays this interest into a small part in a movie. She and George are soon shooting scene together that we see taken over and over, because they keep screwing it up because they're so attracted to each other.
Now I was unsure how this movie who would play, whether it would by just a straight silent film or be a bit winky and knowing, and I'm happy to report that it's winky and knowing, but in the best way. It's smart, and it respects the audiences' intelligence, and plays with and against your expectations in an extremely smart manner. For one, it counts on your familiarity with this story to reduce the amount of word title screens it needs to break for, and also plays against expectations brought on by how familiar this story is. Then it goes in clever and unexpected directions. For example, George is shown a sound film--announced only by us seeing a woman talking into a microphone--then he returns to his dressing room, and when he puts down his drink, it makes a "clunk," to which he reacts with amazement.
So surely you've heard--and if you haven't, it'll only take a few minutes to figure out--that this is the umpteenth gloss on A Star Is Born, and that George will soon be going down as Peppy Miller is rising up. Thankfully, however, it's not about her using him or climbing up on his back, and the movie still manages to go in a direction not entirely expected. Some have complained about the obviousness of having a big scene between them set on a staircase, with her literally going up and he going down, but you know what? It's a beautifully-lit, gorgeously shot staircase.
So throughout George refuses to speak in films, causing you to wonder what his problem is. He sinks lower and lower as Peppy continues to rise. Along the way we get excellent supporting work by James Cromwell, John Goodman and Penelope Ann Miller. And I love Penelope Ann Miller! Who thought to cast her? Great job! The movie ends in a totally satisfying way, with a short phrase explaining for us why George couldn't have spoken the whole time. Also watch out for a hilarious joke around an intertitle that simply says "BANG!" You won't be able to miss it.
So ultimately, I was won over. Some complain that it's sentimental, which doesn't seem to be a valid criticism to me, since sentimentality is part of what the movie is. It's a sentimental, loving homage to silent cinema, so I don't think one should be surprised if its sentimental! What it does is play fair, and stay a step ahead of viewer expectations, and knowingly toy with your familiarity with film. Not to mention pitch-perfect performances, a witty script and lovely cinematography. There's nothing wrong with a crowd-pleaser that legitimately pleases.