Hugo’s ratings at Rotten Tomato—94% for the critics, but only 83% for audiences—is the first clue that all is not well inside this giant clockwork of a movie.
Look inside, and you’ll see a lots of gears that need oil—David Edelstein’s review for New York Magazine, for example, is counted as favorable, but to read it is to find more green splattered on the page than red. He concludes it by noting that Hugo tells his young friend Isabelle that
machines have no extra, unneeded parts, and if he were a piece of a machine he’d have a reason for being. We know, of course, that he is a piece of a machine: Scorsese’s Colossal Stupendous 3-D Thrill Generator. It’s not clear if the irony is intentional.
That hints at what Joe Morgenstern says directly, over at The Wall Street Journal:
thematic potency and cinematic virtuosity—the production was designed by Dante Ferretti and photographed by Robert Richardson—can’t conceal a deadly inertness at the film’s core.
That’s it exactly. The movie’s dialogue is so entirely on the nose, from beginning to end—as if it isn’t enough have Hugo explicitly say that people are machines and need to have a function, and he says it several times—with Isabelle finally replying, gee, maybe that’s what’s wrong with my dad. Doh! Marty, we got the point an hour ago when you made an automaton a central character in the movie.
Even the 3-D didn’t work for me. As it was supposed to, the effect heightened the distance between them when one person was closer to the audience than another, but the people themselves, especially the front person, looked like a cardboard cutout—two dimensional, in other words. And throughout, the 3-D was just plain distracting.
Then there’s the matter of the movie’s tutorials on the history of cinema. I can think of no one I would rather hear lecture on the subject than Martin Scorsese—and if he would deign to teach us, a thousand at a time in a big lecture hall at NYU for twelve bucks a night, sign me up for all of them. But I didn’t take the subway in the other direction to a theatre in the middle of Queens to watch Marty at his most didactic, channeled through the character of Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg). You know that public service commercial that Scorsese does for film preservation? That’s most of the third-act plot in Hugo.
Finally, speaking of film school—Screenwriting 101 isn’t too early to learn a handy little rule of thumb: The protagonist has to resolve the biggest conflict—the crisis—by his own actions. James Bond can’t just sit there enchained by Blofield until Felix Leiter comes to rescue him, he has to escape by his own devices. But Hugo’s final salvation—I’m not really giving anything away, because it’s inconceivable that this movie not have a happy ending—comes as he stands hopelessly in the middle of the train station until Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) saves him.
I have no doubt that Hugo will enter the pantheon of great films, as The Departed did. If only the Academy had given Gangs of New York the Best Director title it arguably deserved, we wouldn’t have to keep rewarding Scorsese for the disappointing movies that have followed.