As a children’s film, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is overwrought and under thought. Its story of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphaned boy who lives in a Paris train station where he surreptitiously maintains the clock mechanisms, suggests a fantasy autobiography. He wants to think of himself as a child of cinema, always working behind the scenes at the actual preservation of old films and—egotistically—maintaining the very idea of cinema. Unfortunately, it’s the idea of cinema that Hugo shortchanges—just as Scorsese betrays what at one time seemed his gift.
These are Scorsese’s hack years. He hasn’t made a decent movie since hitching his cineaste ambitions to Leonardo DiCaprio’s box-office power. Each recent catastrophe (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island), routinely hailed by critics as masterpieces, lacked the personal, real-world touch that had been the promise of Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. The childhood fantasy in Hugo doesn’t express Scorsese’s urban Italian Catholic sensibility; it’s a false, Pixar-ish externalization of the ethnic, hormonal and psychic tensions that distinguished even a second-tier Scorsese movie like The Color of Money—it was either about a boy’s search for an artistic father figure, or a brash young acolyte’s competition and infatuation with a mentor, take your pick.
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