These days, I think all Scorsese would have to do is cut a loud fart for the Academy and moviegoers alike to shout “Bravo!” After all, they did so over the Irish gangster flick The Departed, which cussed at them ad nauseam and gave them violence galore while saying next to nothing of value. Albeit Hugo reeks of a Disneyish vibe, shamelessly flaunting its 3-D graphical-clockworks extravaganza while getting all warm and cuddly about how wonderful it is that two young waifs are finding purpose in life. But all the more sickening for Marty, who used to be above merely pandering to the brainless mainstream. Seriously, is this cotton-candy-sweet Hugo helmed by the same iconoclast who spearheaded such gritty yet subtle character exposés as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas?
Perhaps the root of the problem is that nestled within its smugly heartwarming story is that death knell of death knells when it comes to artistic imagination: an idea about an idea—or, in this case, a movie about movies. (God knows why this inherently derivative genre is so in vogue now, but it is—see my review of My Week With Marilyn.) The movies in question are those of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), a turn-of the-century French silent-film director who created such revolutionary classics as A Trip to the Moon and Gulliver’s Travels. Life has not been kind to Méliès. After serving as a soldier in the Great War, he returned to find that his idealistic vision was no longer appreciated in a world desensitized by the grisly realities of war.
Fast forward to 1930s Paris. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan whose clockmaker father (Jude Law) has died in a museum fire, now inhabits the nooks and crannies of the same train station where a dejected Méliès works as a toymaker.
The connection between Méliès and Hugo centers on a broken automaton that Hugo’s father had been trying to repair. The automaton’s programmed function is to write messages. Though Hugo possesses a notebook with directions on how to fix it, those plans are confiscated by Méliès when he discovers that the young urchin has been thieving some of the toys and parts from his shop. In desperation, Hugo goes to Méliès’s home where he meets Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the goddaughter of Méliès and an orphan herself, who offers to help get the notebook back. When the automaton is finally mended, it turns out that the “message” it conveys is an image from one of Méliès’s films.
Talk about a heavy-handed metaphor. Yes, machines have purposes and people should try to find their purposes. Yes, finding one’s purpose in life can be a key to happiness. Please, do tell us something we don’t know. Does Hugo need to be the voice of such platitudes as “If you lose your purpose in life, it’s like you’re broken”? All that this sermonizing accomplishes is to make this a film that’s as mechanical and perfunctory as the Big-Ben-like technological marvels it depicts.
The aimlessness of the various subplots doesn’t help matters any, especially for a film that’s so fixated on heavy philosophizing about purpose. There’s Isabelle’s fascination with reading, for instance. She visits libraries with Hugo and shows off her budding knowledge of the lexicon. But this idea leads nowhere. So her purpose in life is to read; big deal. All this notion does is dangle within the context of a story about technological innovation and invention.
There’s also the train station guard (Sacha Baron Cohen), who spends the bulk of his time assiduously trying to apprehend the young imp. If you’ve already surmised that Cohen’s role is to inject humor into the story, you’ve guessed right. What else would one expect from the star of Bruno and Borat? But that attempt also fails miserably, since he fails to deliver any punchlines and morphs into a sensitive fluffball by the end. The film, I should have mentioned, is based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret novel by Brian Selznick—which I admittedly haven’t read—so maybe it isn’t entirely screenwriter John Logan’s fault. Still, I think they definitely could have snipped some of the loose strands. And if not, then maybe they should have questioned whether this was really a story worth telling.
So why was the critical establishment transported by emotion after watching Hugo, spouting encomiastic superlatives like “dazzling, “breathtaking,” and “technically virtuosic” and hailing it as one of Scorsese’s greatest achievements to date? Besides the obvious—Scorsese’s reputation—I think the answer is that Hugo’s a quick fix. It makes viewers feel both emotionally connected and clever; it allows them to piece together a puzzle of events, however unlikely they may be, while opening their eyes to zooming, colorful visual effects. Watching Hugo is like tripping on hallucinogenic drugs. Once the journey is over, you realize that though it may have felt awesome, two things are inescapably real: trees don’t wave at you and all the convoluted mumbo-jumbo that you were expounding on the night before is a big fetid pile of horseshit. Similarly, once you understand the complications of the meta-narrative in Hugo and you’re brought back to reality by the egress in the theater or the ticking of the clock in your living room, there’s nothing more to think about and no nuanced characters to identify with.
There’s just no real magic here, no sense of fantasy or dreaminess as Méliès would have wanted. Scorsese never pulls a rabbit out of a hat; he just dons the cinematic old hat, giving moviegoers the eye candy they’ve grown to expect but no more. Marty, Marty, I don’t mean no disrespect, but I’ve seen you do a lot better than this. Capisce?
Joe’s Grade: C