A train crash occurs somewhere in the middle of Martin Scorcese's Hugo, and unfortunately, it's the perfect metaphor for the film as a whole. Despite the earnestness of Scorcese's efforts, the end result is a curious and curiously underwhelming film that suffers from a clumsy script and poor pacing. Coupled with the uneven Shutter Island, Hugo is enough to make one wonder if perhaps Scorcese's best days are at last behind him.
Adapted from the novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznik, the film centers around Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan in 1930s Paris who lives in a train station, and becomes entangled in a mystery revolving around a clockwork automaton. The film marks a rare foray into PG territory for Scorcese, but the film holds little for either children or adults to truly enjoy (though I suspect I'm in a tiiiiiiiny minority on this).
Hugo's biggest problem, unfortunately, is one that comes in right at the start: Scorcese and writer John Logan (The Aviator, Gladiator, Sweeney Todd) never properly establish Hugo as a character. Once the lovely opening shot(s) are over and the film moves into its first proper scene, one thing becomes clear: Ben Kingsley's toy store owner isn't the only one who doesn't understand Hugo; we don't understand him either. As Hugo refuses to explain himself, we can't feel anything for him because we have no reason to empathize with him when he withholds information from other characters. Once the film finally gives us Hugo's backstory (Hi, Jude Law!....Bye, Jude Law!), it's too little too late. This has an unfortunate ripple effect throughout the entirety of the film, and scenes that should be magical or moving feel muted. Throw in a pair of completely extraneous dream sequences, and you have a film that feels like it needs two or three (or five) re-writes.
More troubling is how weak the dialogue and character interactions are. There's rarely a moment that has any charm or wit, and the pacing and timing of the dialogue exchanges feels off by a few beats. Worse, there's a handful of characters who are even more poorly-set up than Hugo himself. Sacha Baron Cohen's station manager, a man who spends much of his time trying to catch orphans, always seems to be just, well, there. We never get a proper introduction to him, and yet we're expected to fear him whenever he appears. Even less fortunate are Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths as a pair of older merchants at the train station whose attempts at romantic connection are thwarted by de la Tour's yappy dog. No one fares worse, however, than Emily Mortimer, who has precisely two brief, uninformative scenes before showing up at the ending as though she's supposed to mean something. It's roles like these that make Hugo feel like a bloated silent film.
Hugo is meant to be a tribute to some of cinema's very first films (Lumiere, Melies, etc...), but weak dialogue and poor pacing leave the whole thing feeling like a missed opportunity. Scorcese's heart is clearly in the right place, but Scorcese the film enthusiast seems to have taken over Scorcese the director, to hugely detrimental results. Though the second half picks up a little and introduces some legitimately charming scenes, it never amounts to anything substantial or fully satisfying. This may have been a passion project for Scorcese, but ultimately Hugo stands as proof that one's passion for a subject matter can be blinding.
**Oh, and the 3D? Pointless.
***Yes, it's a pretty movie, but just about everything is in shades or orange and blue. Someone show Scorcese this article (link) ASAP.