Can one love the movies too much?
I ask not because I’ve been spending too many hours in theaters and screening rooms – though that does tend to happen this time of year – but because of Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s aggressively exuberant love letter to the love of cinema (not necessarily cinema itself).
In adapting Brian Selznick’s intricately illustrated youth novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” Scorsese has pulled out all the stops – and keeps yanking. We open with a soaring shot over the streets of 1930s Paris, which takes us zooming through an elaborate train station, past the travelers and employees bustling about and through the inner gears and levers chugging behind the walls. Finally we settle on the face of an orphan named Hugo (Asa Butterfield). Hugo is a thief by necessity who lives in the boarding room of the station’s deceased timekeeper, anonymously caring for all of the station’s clocks so that no one troubles his solitary existence.
What does this have to do with the movies? Hugo, it turns out, has an adversarial relationship with one of the station’s shopkeepers, a mysterious man (Ben Kingsley) who catches Hugo stealing and forces him to work in his shop as penance. As they get to know each other, we learn more about the man’s past, one rooted in the exciting days of cinema’s birth.
Hugo, then, is about the wonder and amazement of the movies, and how that can help someone find a sense of self. Yet this particular movie, with its frantic pace and extensive CGI imagery, is less amazing than exhausting. It’s ironically unable to capture the magic that it so insistently applauds.
The movie isn’t lacking for setting, yet as the camera continually ducks and weaves through all the wheels and gears that make up Hugo’s world, each element loses its specialness. When we do encounter a dazzling touch – I loved the clock hanging over the station’s vast docks, which Hugo has to enter by precariously crawling down an open ladder attached to the ceiling – Scorsese races by in another sweeping, panoramic shot. He can’t wait to get on to the next wonder, leaving us no time to delight in any of them.
Adding insult to this injury is the 3-D. Nearly every outdoor scene features swirling, 3-D snowflakes. They’re so ubiquitous and dominant that I eventually felt like swatting them out of the way so that I could see. Scorsese also seems to have been compelled by the technology to overload the movie on Baroque establishing shots, with a statue or some other prominent object protruding in the foreground. It’s garish, and used so often as to become hackneyed.
Hugo doesn’t feel like Scorsese in many ways; it’s oddly impersonal, akin to something like The Aviator. The director has a side career in the restoration of Hollywood classics, and Hugo feels like a movie made by Scorsese the film preservationist, not the filmmaker.
More than anything, Hugo is a reminder that wonder still needs discipline and restraint in order to work. There is a telling contrast toward the end of the film, when we get a few glimpses – via original footage and careful recreations – of the early silent films that the Kingsley character was involved in. These are relatively simple productions, yet we can sense – even in their restaging – the enchantment. The simplicity, I think, is key. In order to honor such pictures, Scorsese has created their opposite: something frenetic and bombastic.