Hugo, Marin Scorsese’s wonderfully humane adaptation of a young adult novel, may be one of the most moving films I’ve been to all year. Like Pixar masterpiece Ratatouille, Hugo is a movie about the recovery of the lost self through aesthetic experience. But it’s also a powerful testament to the need for meaningful work, something that resonated with me in particular in this moment.
“I figures if the whole world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part,” Hugo, the titular orphan and clock-keeper, tells his new friend Isabelle (who should play Valentine Wiggin to Asa Butterfield’s Ender in the upocoming Ender’s Game movie so these two immensely talented young people can work together again) as he shows her around the massive timepieces of Paris’s central train station. “I had to be here for a reason.” Work, whether it’s keeping the people who run the train station’s businesses on schedule, repairing the fiendishly complicated automaton his late father rescued from a museum storeroom, or finding a way to puzzle out the rigid station toy shop proprietor, give meaning to a boy who has been abandoned by a drunken uncle and the accident that claimed his father. “I don’t understand why my father died, why he left me alone,” Hugo cries to the station master, who wants to ship Hugo off to the same orphanage that raised him. “This is my only chance. To work.”
We may not face the same dire circumstances as orphans in the pause between the World Wars — or filmmakers who have fallen out of vogue and been reduced to clever tinkering. But that doesn’t mean that the desire for work that is spiritually as well as materially sustaining is the stuff of fairy tales. One of the least attractive aspects of the calls, whether from Republican candidates or University of Pennsylvania students, for Occupy protestors to just get a job is that they assume that bread is not just available, but sufficient, and that roses are a part of the equation if not just for the 1 percent, for a smaller part of society. It may be right that in a readjusting economy controlled by increasingly larger companies, there are simply fewer deeply meaningful jobs available. Not everyone is going to work in a creative industry, or fight for the disadvantaged in court, or run a thriving small business that operates like a genuine family rather than a corporate facsimile of one. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t want to do work that feels in some way meaningful, and that they believe themselves not just qualified for but suited to. And even if economic reality is harsh, you’re not a flake to want those things and to strive for that sense of meaning. It may ultimately be easier to bridge financial gaps than emotional ones. But in Hugo, even the harsh station master finds there’s more pleasure in exercising discretion than there is in blind enforcement of the rules.
Speaking of the station master, he’s played by Sacha Baron Cohen in one of his finest roles yet, here as an injured veteran of the great war, whose gait and heart have been stiffened by a brace on his left leg. In the projects he’s written, Baron Cohen is dedicated to exposing the absurdities of the 21st century, but he seems to be at his best, both here and in Sweeney Todd, playing relics of earlier eras. In Hugo, the smell of country-imported flowers and the strange beauty of the automaton return his humanity, and the inventive clockwork that gives him an improved leg reignites his hope for progress, and for love. Similarly, Mama Jeanne, the toymaker’s wife is restored to herself by the reminder of the creative life she left behind: time and circumstance may have robbed her of memories, but they cannot erase the fact of her fabulousness in a prior age.
In the world of Hugo, a turn away from cinema after World War I (which impacted, if not stopped, the production of European films) is both a personal and societal tragedy. And Hugo argues forcefully that while movies can expose the tragedies of our time, they can remind us of the magic and miracles that surround-and help us dream our way into the future. Escaping into a world we’d like to live in for a few hours inevitably raises questions about the one we actually return to when we leave the theater.