An American in Paris seems to be the film that many people have billed a classic so prolifically and impulsively that the brand stuck with very little questioning. A fairly obvious Best Picture win in 1951 coupled with suave, acclaimed leading man Gene Kelly in the starring role of a musical and you have a film that was bound to be a feast for your eyes that you could enjoy with your ears, as well. This is a film so rooted in predictable Hollywood musical fare of the time that if you stare into the decorated setpieces and Kelly's meaningful smile you almost, almost forget how forgettable this film really is.
The story revolves around Kelly's Jerry Mulligan, a former Army serviceman from America now trying to make it as an artist in the dreamlike land of Paris, selling portraits on sidewalks and streetcorners. One of the first people to really pay attention to his works is Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a woman who falls for him and his attitude almost immediately, so much so that she rents a studio for him to sell his artwork in a more professional manner. Jerry, however, becomes more infatuated with Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron), a French woman he meets at a nightclub that he begins to actively pursue, despite her repeated attempts to make him go away (a standoffish personality, a fake phone number, etc). As Milo still tries to assist him, Jerry is hellbent on getting Lise to love him.
In addition to Jerry, we are introduced to two people in the beginning of the film in a manner that sort of overstates the importance of these characters. One is Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a struggling concert pianist who often works alongside Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary), a French lounge-singer. These two men, despite being introduce din the opening minutes of the film with Jerry's long monologue about his love for Paris even though he is an American, don't hold much weight come the hour-mark of the film, when An American in Paris largely turns to embellishing the rather awkward relationship between Jerry and Lise.
Jerry and Lise's relationship is made awkward not only because of the fact that Lise really lacks personality outside of a pretty face and doesn't give us much of a reason to really concern ourselves with her presence, a feat that was so ubiquitous during this time in Hollywood that you almost can't critique it, but the annoying way Jerry becomes entranced with her off of what is ultimately just a vessel of beauty. An American in Paris really shows how far we, as a society, have become with how we approach women; what was once seen as an effort of true charm and persistency is now seen as offputting and creepy by the majority of women, despite whatever intention was assumed by the male. Jerry's intentions have far wandered past romantic and are entering in the aforementioned latter territory, though that doesn't seem to particularly concern him nor anyone else in the film.
Once more, it's almost meaningless to bring this up because so many films had the same kind of masculine attitude towards females (I just watched His Girl Friday and the same case can be made with that film). The real issue I take with An American in Paris, however, is the lack of substance in the film. This is a film with very flat, impossibly perky, and incredulous characters that act and operate like robots from the 1950's rather than actual people. Gene Kelly's Jerry character is about as monotone and uninteresting as you can get, in addition to being very square, and both Adam and Henri have a fraction of that personality and are largely defined by strange character tropes and mannerisms. Milo seems to be the only real character in the film, and even she is underwritten as soon as Lise comes in, almost mirroring how Jerry entirely loses interest and ditches her upon meeting Lise.
If that wasn't enough, An American in Paris has one of the biggest cinematic cop-outs I've yet to see. The final twenty minutes of an already lengthy and taxing one-hundred and thirteen minutes is a breathless interpretive dance number that just throws away any kind of conflict resolution and character development that was built up until this point. The film doesn't seem to have any interest in concluding its story with any kind of assured statement or seriousness, and instead goes full Broadway for a slight and outrageously expensive (well over $500,000 apparently) dance number that grows tiresome after a few minutes.
An American in Paris gets considerable points for costume and set design, as even a mediocre script can't eclipse the majestic look and feel Paris always seems to ooze. However, with everything this film had going for it, there's little evidence of anything in the way to make this admittedly safe and harmless musical anything other than standard fare that was fortunate enough to get praised a bit too much by far too many people.
Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Nina Foch, Oscar Levant, and Georges Guétary. Directed by: Vincente Minnelli.
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