Over the course of Martin Scorsese's career he has evolved from Cassavetes to Vincent Minnelli. From the raw filmmaking of Mean Streets to the polished Hollywood spectacles of The Aviator. This is not a judgment or criticism. I'm not some snob who sniffs at the very thought of Scorsese doing a big budget family 3D extravaganza. Marty has done great work on every type of budget. The Age of Innocence is a superb movie and that's the definition of a star-studded major studio production. Yet as Scorsese pushes into Spielberg territory with Hugo, his first foray into family filmmaking, I can't help but feel something has been lost.
Hugo tells the story of a young boy who, after his beloved watchmaker father dies, goes to live with his drunkard of an uncle in a Parisian train station maintaining the clocks. When his uncle disappears Hugo is left to live there alone, scurrying through the walls, living off stolen pastries, trying to remain invisible to a station inspector eager to cart him off to the orphanage. Hugo is obsessed with unlocking the mystery of the metal automaton that he and his father were working on before he died, and answers might lay with the short-tempered old man played by Ben Kingsley operating the station's toy booth. Together with the old man's precocious adopted daughter played by Chloe Moretz, they try to solve the mystery.
So what's Hugo missing? It's certainly not skill. Forty-four years after he debuted with Who's That Knocking at My Door Marty is as sharp as he ever was. It's a beautiful movie, worth recommending for its intricate visual detail and story book atmosphere alone. Every moment arrives unmistakably filtered through the great director's boundless cinematic knowledge. Only Marty could take his first big-budget effects movie and turn it into a meditation on big budget effects movies, placing the current 3D trend in historical context going back a century to when audiences were diving out of the way of the image of an oncoming train projected on a sheet.
No what's missing is, in a word, spontaneity. As Marty's budgets escalate, so does his fealty to the shooting script. No longer can he roll film on DeNiro and Pesci as they find the scene. Not when you are shooting an elaborately choreographed chase scene in 3D through a full scale replica of a Parisian train station for a movie that has to play on thousands of screens come the holiday weekend. No, then you stick to script.
Of course, sticking to the script can work wonders too, especially when you've got a crackerjack screenplay like, say, The Departed. On the other hand when the screenplay is a bit clunky in parts, and lacks a sense of urgency for most of the running time, and the stabs at humor are flatter than a pancake, as is the case with Hugo, then Scorsese doesn't have the freedom to breathe some life into it. Sacha Baron Cohen comes ready to play as Hugo's comedic villain, but he can't get any oxygen, any room to stretch. He's stuck bringing what energy he can to the scripts stilted comedy beats, most of which involve him bumbling through repetitive chase sequences.
If this all reads like I've come ready to trash Hugo that isn't the case. As a matter of fact I liked it quite a bit. I am simply trying to discern why, for the second time in a row following Shutter Island, Scorsese has assembled a team of incredible talent to make a beautifully mounted film that never becomes reaches its masterpiece potential. I have to conclude that these are the best conceivable results for scripts that in their condition were never going to be a masterpieces no matter who directed them, be it Scorsese, or Hitchcock or Kubrick, for that matter.
For a large portion of the running time, despite all the clutter and action and whizzing around the train station in eye-popping tracking shots, there is simply not much happening dramatically. The triumphant climax of Hugo is a scholar announcing that he found some old movie prints in vaults, off screen, in between scenes. Don't get me wrong. You will find no bigger champion of finding old films in vaults than myself. Seriously. Hooray for finding old film prints in vaults. But, as the climax of a rousing adventure story for all ages, it leaves a bit to be desired, does it not?
True, there is a lot of talk about family and being whole, but none of it connects. The heart of this movie is not the characters but the dazzling setting and the old movie nostalgia and on that it delivers big time. Marrying this production to a story we really cared about would have made for an all-time great instead of the gorgeous, but dramatically inert film we get here.
It's a breathtaking, surprisingly moving, sequence, and the fact that it stands alone in my memory apart from the plot machinations that lead to it is, in the final tally, not that important. The fact that Hugo ultimately falls short as whole, doesn't discount the fact that, for a precious few reels of film, it touches greatness. That's a few reels more than 99% of movies, and it makes Hugo essential viewing, flaws and all.
Verdict: If the first tier of Scorsese's work is the greats, the Goodfellas; Last Temptation; No Direction Home tier, then Hugo falls into the second tier of Scorsese's work. This is the tier with After Hours and Gangs and Bringing Out the Dead. The mixed results experiments and the half-masterpieces. There's no mistaking that Hugo is the work of a master. But it's brilliance lies in its stunning tribute to the great storytellers of the past, not in telling a great story of its own. 7 out of 10