How Unique Got Ordinary

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Hugo is Scorsese’s fantasy autobiography

By Armond White

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, lacks 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, Pixarish externalization of the ethnic, hormonal and psychic tensions that distinguished even a second-tier Scorsese movie like The Color of Money—it’s 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.

In Hugo, Scorsese trivializes boyhood passions into merchandise—that is, 3-D technology that sells out and misrepresents his perception of the world. The you-are-there quality of the bars, streets and tenements of Scorsese’s best films are abandoned for an undistinguished artificiality. Hugo is cluttered with bric-a-brac intended to salute fin de siècle industrialization related to the birth of the movies. But unlike Peter Bogdanovich’s charming, silent-era fable Nickelodeon, Hugo sacrifices a historically accurate sense of place. Instead, Scorsese seems to be imitating the pixilated world of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a vision of Paris’s cultural heart that was authentically marvelous in Amélie, The City of Lost Children and last year’s wondrous, underappreciated Micmacs.

Unsuited to 3-D, Scorsese’s Hugo world looks like the obsessions of a cultural hoarder. The screen is literally cluttered with so much ornamentation and junk that there’s no feeling for materiality of the industrial era (a specialty of the little-known animated film Robots). The technology stifles Scorsese’s sensibility and distorts it.

Hugo’s opening foretells the coming two-hour disaster. It’s a super digitally enhanced traveling dolly shot, like the famous Copacabana entrance scene of Goodfellas, which drew viewers into the gangster world and its corrupt, seductive pleasures. Here, the shot goes on too long, doing rollercoaster-style loop-the-loops. This is not the exhilaration of movement; it’s digital overkill. Throughout Hugo, Scorsese loses spatial and veristic reality. (A train wreck occurs without showing the train jump the track.) The slapstick action scenes are incoherent, and 3-D “closeness” violates the cuts to long shots, losing geographic orientation, making the action chaotic. Any critic who praises this mess is simply bowing to the Scorsese brand as to the Pixar brand.

Scorsese the artist gets lost among Hugo’s sweetly roguish characters—a spunky little girl (Chlöe Moretz), a crotchety old man (Ben Kingsley), a cute, dog-loving couple (Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour), an emotionally crippled war vet flic (Sasha Baron Cohen, mugging), a flower seller (Emily Mortimer) and a boy hero too much like Harry Potter.

Who is the director of Goodfellas and Casino trying to kid with this craven cast of puppets? Hugo’s falseness recalls the arch, excessively technological style of Baz Luhrmann. Hugo and friends’ constant blather about dreams is Hollywood huckster babble. Scorsese, an expressionist realist, should know better than to make a Moulin Rouge—but now he’s worse than Luhrmann: He’s a hack.

This is how a once special filmmaker destroys his virtues and becomes ordinary. Scorsese’s fakery gets worse when it pretends to shift into sincerity and little Hugo’s obsession with a mechanical automaton leads him to encounter silent filmmaker and magician Georges Méliès. Here’s where Scorsese panders to film geeks with his love for all cinema. As with the preposterous celebration of Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels in The Aviator, Scorsese pretends to honor cinema history by exaggerating the importance and wonder of movies that are frankly unwatchable, only notable as historic footnotes. This celebration of Méliès is as disingenuous as pretending to rediscover the essence of cinema in 3-D.

Asa Butterfield and Chloë Moretz in Hugo.

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