The Corner

Hugo’s Hubris (Spoilers!)

I saw Martin Scorsese’s new movie in large part because of John Podhoretz’s rave review. He begins:

How many rhapsodic adjectives can be summoned up to describe Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s new movie in 3D? Well, perfect comes to mind, which is saying something about a film that runs two hours and seven minutes. As I think back over it, there’s not a second that seems out of place, not a performance I would trade, not a bum note in the score, not a shot wrongly conceived.

I like John’s reviews very much, and he’s not one to be swept away. So I was pretty excited to see the film. Moreover, he’s hardly alone among critics. It’s arguably the best-reviewed film of 2011.

I’m afraid I was disappointed.

The film begins magically and you can tell it is a true labor of love. The whole thing is beautiful. The child actors are excellent. Sasha Baron Cohen flirts with greatness. But for all the loving detail and the directorial confidence, the whole thing strikes me as . . . self-indulgent.

I never read the book (The Invention of Hugo Cabret), so maybe the fault lies in the material itself. But I doubt it. The movie begins wonderfully, following young Hugo as he lives and works in a French train station (Gare Montparnasse). It teases — one could even say seduces — the audience into thinking we’re about to be swept away into a magical tale akin to the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (the book, not the movie). Instead, it becomes an at times didactic treatise on the wonders of film and, yes, the burning need for film preservation. There’s no real magic, just fairly heavy-handed allusions to the magic of cinema. It’s all very meta if you ask me.

Given Scorsese’s passion for film, the history of film and the preservation of old movies, you can see why he loved the subject matter so much — and it shows. But his love for the subject eventually overpowers the story. It moves away from Hugo and toward a very high-end and visually impressive lecture about the glories of cinema. It felt, to me at least, very manipulative and forced, as if the important part of the film wasn’t the name in the title at all. (Scorsese seems to be developing a problem with shoving his messages down the viewer’s throat. Recall that rat-walk in the final frames of The Departed).

I took my daughter — who simply loves movies — and she and (it seemed to me) the other kids in the audience liked it but felt like they were brought to a grown-up movie kids were supposed to like. And that’s why I think it appeals to so many critics. It’s a “childrens’ movie” aimed at adult cinéastes nostalgic about what movies meant to them when they were kids.

It’s also too long.  


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