There are worse things to be at Oscar time than a warm-hearted, visually inventive, crowd-pleasing love letter to the silent film era, especially one that comes out of left field, features exciting newcomers (to American audiences, at least), takes the form of a black-and-white silent film itself, comments on the real-life phenomenon of movie stars whose popularity didn't transfer over to the world of "talkies," and turns it all into a story of love, kindness and a heroic little doggie. Those worse things are every other movie in current release that didn't figure out how to work all of that stuff into a vintage 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Sorry, other movies.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, known in the U.S. for the arthouse spy comedy OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies) is a silent film icon in 1927 Hollywood, the kind of man who knows exactly how handsome he is and how to milk every moment for all the adoration he believes he's got coming to him. In the same town at the same time, aspiring ingenue Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) -- as spunky and sweet as her goofy stage name -- finds herself graduating from being cast as a "Beauty Girl" and "Maid" to roles with names like "Baby Babe" and "Miss Isadora" before hitting it huge in the talkies with starring roles in movies with titles like Beauty Spot.
That trademark makeup pencil mole is an off-the-cuff suggestion from Valentin, a gift that Peppy remembers and privately cherishes even as their careers go in opposite directions. She's the future, but he's been left behind, slammed with the sudden realization that his silent movie "mugging" is out of style. With the onset of the Great Depression, his fortune gone, abandoned by Hollywood and an angry wife (Penelope Ann Miller), drinking himself to death, the only friend Valentin has left is his devoted, movie-trained stunt-dog (nameless in the film, the final credits list him as "Uggie," and if they decided to start giving Oscars to scene-stealing, cheers-and-applause-causing animals, this one would take it home).
What happens next is corny but clever, sweet but not sappy and, weirdly enough, probably the first almost-silent movie that its potentially wide audience will have ever seen from start to finish aside from the 1984 Giorgio Moroder version of Metropolis. It always remembers that it's a novelty film and never wears out its welcome, preferring to pop with seemingly effortless charm rather than relentlessly elbowing you in the ribs, making sure you "get it." And if the idea of watching an 80-year-old, dialogue-free film has always felt alien or too much like homework, then along with the simultaneous release of the equally early-cinema-minded family film Hugo, maybe this tribute to those early movies will inspire you to go watch something small, square and silent.