Oh Hugo. What are we going to do with you? My feelings toward this film have been on a constant roller coaster since the project was announced. At first, I was interested. I liked the book, and Martin Scorsese is great, so I had no reason not to be excited. Then the first trailers came out, and my hopes that this would be any good were snuffed out instantaneously. The trailers for this film were so sickly-sweet that they gave me a cavity. Any interest was lost. And then the reviews started coming out. Glowing reviews. Better reviews than I could have expected in my wildest dreams. And then Oscar buzz. People calling it a “serious contender”, not just for a nomination, but for the awards themselves. And then Oscar nominations aplenty. More, in fact, than any other film this year, including nods for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.
My interest was piqued.
Unfortunately, Hugo is largely a failure. The story is, indeed, wonderful, but it should have stayed on the page. It feels forced and stiff on screen. The actors are invested in their roles, but the roles themselves are flat and dull. Sacha Baron Cohen turns in an abominable performance, that is obnoxious and painfully unfunny. Every second that he is on screen drags endlessly. The lame attempts to give him some sort of story arc and back-story are completely unnecessary, and they don’t help me to become interested in the character. I can say that about the vast majority of the characters in Hugo. The movie is hardly even about the title character, and because of this he has almost nothing to do. Chloe Grace-Moretz, usually great, plays an awfully-written character. Her entire persona revolves around the fact that she likes books. That’s it. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she literally says, “I love books!” out loud several times in the movie. There is awful, on-the-nose dialogue like this all throughout the film. She makes a lot of literary references that also feel forced, and that sometimes make no sense in context. It’s as if the screenwriter was just picking famous books out of a hat and then throwing them into the script.
There is so much time in this movie spent on things that don’t matter. There are a handful of people who work in the train station where Hugo lives, and we spend an inordinate amount of time getting to know them and showing their day-to-day routines. This stuff contributes nothing to the narrative, and it should have been cut very early on. Christopher Lee plays a librarian who does nothing. Richard Griffiths is a newspaper vendor who does nothing. These people don’t have anything to do with what happens to Hugo, not in the least. Then again, Hugo himself is almost totally expendable. We learn next to nothing about him, and he barely has an arc of any kind. The real story is about Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley, looking eerily similar to the man in real life). At first, I thought that the appearance of Méliès would be just a fun side-note, something peripheral to the story. But no, the entire movie is about him. He’s practically the main character. So why is this movie called Hugo?
It’s obvious from the presentation that Martin Scorsese doesn’t really care about Hugo’s story. What really fascinates him is Méliès and the ways that film itself influences the story. And yes, the Méliès stuff is fantastic. The character is very interesting, and his story was engrossing. I would have preferred an entire movie about him, a biopic of his life. Scorsese should direct it, as he does a fine job with the flashback scenes, and with pretty much everything involving the character. However, it only makes up half a movie, a movie that is half about a completely different character. The other half is boring, a complete waste of time. I never found a reason that I should care about anyone in this movie other than Méliès. Worst of all, I found myself zoning out at several points during the film, not even caring what was going to happen next. That sort of apathy in an audience member can totally sink a movie, and it does in this case.
So yes, Hugo was bad, but not at all in the way that I expected it to be. I thought that it would be cloying and precocious. To its credit, it wasn’t at all like that, but it was bad in a totally different way. Hugo is shoddily made, with awful writing and non-passionate, impersonal directing by Scorsese*. Even as a film lover, and a great appreciator of film history, this movie did not connect with me at all. I can’t believe that this is considered the runner-up to The Artist among the other Best Picture nominees. There’s a film that takes a particular part of cinematic history and does right by it, by staying focused and not straying from its topic. Hugo is partly a really great movie, but as a whole, it’s a failure.
And if this really is the runner-up for Best Picture, I’m dreading what the other films have to offer.
*By the way, Scorsese isn’t invisible behind the camera. You can totally tell that he made this movie. For example, there are so many tracking shots that I lost count in the first twenty minutes.
I’ll give the film this, the 3D was really spectacular. I don’t think I’ve seen a better use of it in recent years. Scorsese uses the technique to its fullest, and the result is beautiful to watch. Even as I tuned out the story, I was left appreciating how great the 3D was. However, this should never be the best reason to see a film, and I won’t recommend Hugo on the basis of that alone.