Hugo could have been more boring if Martin Scorsese had directed it from a chair attached by bolts to the shoulders of a brain-damaged Tom Hanks, like a cinematic Master Blaster of schmaltz. Twenty minutes in I started fidgeting, looking around at the other bougies packed in the theater, wondering if I was in the wrong film. Nay, the wrong skin. I’d read Hugo‘s ecstatic reviews, and heard Scorsese waxing poetic re: 3D on NPR. The premise—an orphan who winds the clocks between the walls of a post-war Parisian train station brings a robot to life, and accidentally befriends real life filmmaker Georges Méliès—seemed promising. But Hugo fetishizes instead of reveals the beauty of its subjects. Clocks, trains, machines, silent movies, and all manner of other steampunk knickknacks brindle brightly to melodic accordion music throughout Hugo, but the story never pushes them past the level of prop. I went in expecting steak and vegetables, salad and wine, cake and ice cream, but got a cotton candy buffet, and exited the theater with a stomach ache in my soul.
Hugo presents filmmaking not as porous, but implacable. Would that a story about the magic of visual storytelling had had a good story to tell itself. The never-ending army of precious objects—heart-shaped locks, flower girls, mechanical mice, blue-eyed children with British accents, blueprints, sketches, automatons, glimpses of le Tour Eiffel—all seemed summoned to underscore an obscure art history lesson: remember this director (who is actually interesting, but whose Wikipedia page is conveys more of why than the movie). Scorsese attempt to exalt art, imagination, adventure, etc; but in pursuit of these ideals, his heroes pay no price. Without stakes, the scenes are leaden, and the theme yawns on: in the adoration of precious surfaces stuffed with good intentions, a piety as dull as it is cheap can be achieved. The beautiful logic of what the clocks mean, how they or any of the other props surprises us, is beside the point if they are shiny, and everything is shot in friscalating 3D™ dusklight, and “celebrates imagination.” It’s haunting to me that a movie supposedly so sincere about art making climaxes at an awards ceremony. Remember that scene in Toy Story 3 where the toys, faced with their imminent meltdown into magma, turn to one another, then decide to hold hands, lest they face death alone? Nothing anywhere near that real or human happens here.
Hugo brought lots of other movies to mind—Amelie, Ratatouille, Kontrol… I mean, upon exiting Hugo with the rest of the unwitting Thanksgiving-weekend throng, I wished to see another movie immediately so that I might wipe the dull taste of Hugo from the mouth of my poor movie brain, Hugo being like a chocolate-flavored rice cake: containing a necessary trace of hydrogenated vegetable oil, a kind of passable color-flavor combination, but underneath pure tasteless healthy.
The other movies it brought to mind—two set in the same accordion-soaked Paris as Hugo; one in a similar train-station conceit—were far superior if only because their directors showed a defter hand than old Scorsese with the construction of world—construction of viable, idiosyncratic worlds being the only thing any movie, nay work of art, is responsible for—Ratatouille was good because that little rat knew his way around the kitchen in explicitly unknowable ways, his rat-ness driving both story and scenery; Hugo, alas, is neither animated nor particular savvy about its ostensible locale: the eponymous child actor seems barely able to navigate the obvious back-lot he’s found himself on—at one point hiding from the station inspector by crouching in front of some stacked-up chairs.
I mean come on! He’s supposed to live in the station! Know all the crannies! Take us on a mind-whizzing tour—in Kontrol, the main character knew his labyrinth so well he could even sleep there, avoiding the security camera’s gaze, and didn’t Amelie understand the sightlines in her little apartment complex well enough to set up some seriously adorable hi-jinx?
Yet there are so many things wrong with Hugo, it seems unfair to linger on just that one: besides its sins of worldlessness, Hugo falls flat in an NPR-kind of way. The New Yorker, mine old frenemy, declares, “Hugo is superbly playful,” and yet the kind of blitheness Hugo achieves is distinctly pat, almost platitudinous: art is the arena in which the most trivial kinds of redemption are looped in endless reels of feel good puffery. Everyone ends up smug and satiated in Hugo,including Sasha Baron Cohen’s maimed Station Inspector, who seems to have wandered in from the set of a much funnier, more interesting movie. Had Hugo simply played the old movies it tries to celebrate, with some Ali G commentary to boot, I would have been totally and completely satisfied, my movie mouth full of cavities like it should be.
I never get tired of Jack Black’s shtick because his one joke—self-aggrandizing lies and facial contortions made up on the spot in order to convince and persuade strangers he is more amazing and mysterious than he is—is also my own, only joke. Jack Black movies fail to the extent they restrain this joke and succeed to the extent they let him push it to the limit. Kung Fu Panda was a bitter disappointment because even though Jack Black voiced the main character and was in virtually every scene, his personality was only present in the intro and the closing credits. Gulliver’s Travels gives us more Black than that, and therefore was not nearly the disappointment I feared it would be. Travels echoed one of my other favorite B-comedies, Black Knight, wherein Martin Lawrence, whose shtick is also limited to the hyperbolic bluster of an insecure fool, must save medieval England from itself. But whereas Black Knight’s Lawrence’s blackness throws into relief the whiteness of the Middle Ages, Travel’s Black is a little too white to truly explode the mores of the diminutive Victorian water out of which he is the proverbial fish.
A soggy script and weak special effects are two of the malnourished mules slowing this rickety troika as it grinds through the slush of predictable children’s parable. Camera shots of the massive Black conversing with his Lilliputian heroes and villains almost always feel forced—a giant back of the head here, a jagged CGI background there—and the logic of transportation, geography, time, communication, and character are all made mincemeat in subservience to the ponderous plot. But dragging us through to the finish line intact is portly mule number three, Black’s believable comic acting. An egomaniacal pug, superficially unattractive in every way, who has somehow managed to clamber to the top of Hollywood, or at least the middle, cashing million dollar checks and headlining features in an industry where taller, more handsome and versatile actors can execute their entire careers without notice—what makes Black so watchable? Perhaps it is the accuracy with which the actor, his characters, and roles generally triangulate the crisis and apotheosis of American masculinity. Extreme performative intelligence twizzled around a core of intellectual and emotional immaturity. Go see this movie if you have kids and want them to see what rules the world.