Monday, December 5, 2011
I was disappointed with Martin Scorsese's HUGO. I was ready to love it, too. I don't know why so many are saying this is the director's most personal film, just because half of it deals with the title character's last-minute love of movies. Scorsese's A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH CINEMA already did that (meanwhile, MEAN STREETS and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST are also infinitely more personal, for more complex reasons). I'm baffled, too, because HUGO bears few hallmarks of a Scorsese movie; Thelma Schoonmaker's editing seems flabby and the mere presence of kind, well-balanced children makes it a strange entry into Scorsese's ouvre (the only kids I can remember in previous Scorsese movies are the mouthy Alfred Lutter and Jodie Foster in ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, Foster's teen whore in TAXI DRIVER, the minature gangster wannabe Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS, and the very young, nude Howard Hughes in THE AVIATOR's first scene). Plus, Scorsese's postcardy 1925-era Paris feels more like Dickensian England. (Scorsese's connection to Paris is tenuous. Everyone in the film has a British accent. Are French accents too much at ask for? Oh, yeah, this is the company that changed the film's name three times, from the book's title THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, to HUGO CABRET, to the Franco-scrubbed HUGO; the studio would prefer, obviously, to downplay the French thing). Some are saying that this is Scorsese's try at a Spielbergian statement, but it feels more like lazy late-80s Chris Columbus. (If Scorsese's name weren't connected to this film, would it seriously be given as much leeway as it has with critics and movie fans? At press time, the audience has spoken and this $170 million film is a resounding box-office dud.)
The first hour of HUGO is pure set-up and 3D tricks, with the orphaned title character winding his way through the innards of the Gare Montparnasse, the Paris train station he calls home (he lives inside of, and runs, the station's huge, many-cogged clock). Hugo, as a character, never really gets under our skin because he's written so thinly by screenwriter John Logan (who doesn't skimp with the plotholes, either); Hugo has two unpleasant settings: harried and hurt. Asa Butterfield, the actor playing Hugo, doesn't help matters: his palpable lack of facial expressions eventually became somewhat disturbing to me (he does have big, blue, blank-staring eyes, though I never had any idea what they were saying). The one scene between he and Jude Law as his father wasn't enough for me to sense any sort of demonstrated connection between the two characters, and certainly not enough for motivation to drive this story (Law is dispatched early, with only five or six lines, mostly about the admittedly nifty wind-up robot that plays a central role in the tale; by the way, Hugo's mother is never mentioned). Sasha Baron Cohen, as a constantly frustrated train station gendarme who's after the thieving Hugo, plays the sort of now-cliched Frenchman that Peter Sellers had a much better time with in the 60s and 70s. He's totally wasted here, and doesn't even get to do a reDACulous Far-ench accent.
In HUGO's busy-work first half, there're a lot of essentially boring scenes strung together with dizzying camera/computer tricks, gorgeous art direction (by Dante Ferretti, who can polish up his Oscar speech now), and never-exciting chases. After all of the set up with the father dying and Hugo's adoption by a drunken uncle (Ray Winstone), we're then never given any hint of Hugo's real relationship with his clockwork-training uncle because, like Law, he disappears from the film so quickly. Hugo's love interest, played by a usually-reliable but here struggling Chloe Moretz, injects a little life into the movie, but their flirtations eventually fizzle out mightily (I was left at the film's end wondering how Hugo felt about his instantly-changed relationship with Moretz, which I imagined was met with resounding crash). About an hour into the film, Scorsese's main point--that silent films are awesome--comes into play as a sidebar when the cantankerous toy shop owner that torments Hugo (Ben Kingsley) turns out to be film pioneer George Melies.
HUGO perks up for a while with this diversion from Hugo's own story, mainly because Melies had a fascinating rise and decline, to which Scorsese's film is faithful. But, you know, though it would have been a harder sell to the studios, I would have preferred Scorsese tackling a whole movie about Melies' life; as it stands, this film history lesson/plea for film restoration seems shoehorned into this rather somber kid's film, and effectively works as a sort of bait-and-switch for the audience. Kingsley's performance is not particularly memorable, but I do love the remarkably colorful Meiles' shooting set recreations--in fact, everything in HUGO that deals with film history is fun (it was a welcome relief, actually, to see all the silent movie clips here--everything from the Lumiere's WORKERS LEAVING A FACTORY to Harold Lloyd's SAFETY LAST, but no NOSFERATU or SUNRISE; also, it's interesting to eventually see the flat Melies images transformed into 3D). However, this section of the movie shoves Hugo way into the background of his own story. By the time we come back to his world, we hardly care what happens to him, and you can sense Hugo's an afterthought for the filmmakers as well. In the end, the most interesting character here is the taciturn automaton (another Ferretti creation) that drives the film's plot. The device's enigmatic face is the film's single lasting image, which is pretty sad to say, considering HUGO obviously wants to move us to tears.
Look, I adore Melies as a filmmaker, and I'm glad that HUGO tries to educate kids about the charms of silent cinema by his inclusion here. But, honestly, that's no reason for me to love this movie (by the way, the kids sitting in front of me at the theater spent the first hour distractedly trying to grab at the 3D snow and steam and once the Melies story commenced, they began seriously squirming in their seats). I will handily admit HUGO's steampunky rust is beautiful to look at (forget the 3D, though; it's impressive, but unnecessary). But all the way through, I kept wishing Scorsese's film had the overpowering emotion of, say, Carroll Ballard's THE BLACK STALLION, another visually striking film about an isolated boy who, instead, happens to be funny, clever, talented and easy to care for. THE BLACK STALLION does everything HUGO wants to do; it conjures up REAL magic while restoring the lovable main character's self-confidence and connection to a charismatic father. But, instead, HUGO is nearly in toto a humorless, charmless affair. Though it's constantly searching, it fails to find its heart. It's a broken machine.
FINAL NOTE: In case you loved HUGO and want to call me an unfeeling curmudgeon, you should know that I went to see THE MUPPETS right afterwards. I forgave that movie for its faults, because the Muppets themselves--as always--captivated me. Lotsa laughs in THE MUPPETS (but maybe too much focus on the human characters and only one good song; Paul Williams was apparently unavailable) . But, for sure, it was much more fun than HUGO.