Director's ambition undercuts biopic of Hitchcock

Wednesday, November 28, 2012 | by: Mat DeKinder

The movie “Hitchcock” is a bit schizophrenic, which I suppose is appropriate since the majority of the film occurs during the creation of the rotund director’s classic “Psycho.”

The movie is simultaneously many different things: it is a biopic; it is a Hollywood history; it is a drama; it is a farce; and it is a character study.

What it is more than anything else is an anatomy of a marriage between Alfred Hitchcock, played gamely by Anthony Hopkins, and Alma Reville, as portrayed by the brilliant Helen Mirren.

While “Hitchcock” has flaws aplenty, it is always engaging and a treat for movie nerds (guilty!),  who are showered with winks and insights into the making of one of Hollywood’s seminal films. 

It seems only fair to lay both the successes and the failures of the movie at the feet of its director, Sacha Gervasi, whose only other experience behind the camera was the heavy-metal documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil.”

Gervasi has an ambition that is not quite up to his skill level, and while his excellent cast and compelling subject matter are more than enough to carry the movie, a lot of his bolder moves don’t really pay off.

I liked Gervasi having Hitchcock introduce the movie in the wry and dry manner the old Brit would use to introduce his television show, even if it does serve only to make the film a little too self-aware.

What didn’t work for me were Hitchcock’s recurring daydreams where he engages in stilted, somewhat pointless conversations with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life serial killer who served as inspiration for the character of Norman Bates.

An interesting bit of worthless trivia: Gein also inspired the character of the murderer Jame Gumb, who Hopkins, in his greatest role as madman Hannibal Lecter, helped capture in “Silence of the Lambs."

From there “Hitchcock” works pretty well as a straightforward movie, albeit one that has trouble finding its focus.

There are really two movies at work here, one is about the rocky path “Psycho” took from page to screen and the artistic forces that shaped it, and the other is about Hitchcock’s and Alma’s tumultuous marriage.

Both are incredibly interesting. Classic movies are often regarded as forgone conclusions, but “Psycho” had to overcome reluctant studios and production delays along with bold creative choices like the casting of Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) or the jarring use of music over the infamous shower scene.

There is also some deference paid to the unsung foot soldiers of Hitchcock’s team such as his agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his assistant Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette).

As for Hitch and Alma, she is given great credit for her collaborations and influence in regards to his work, but romantically Alma struggled with Hitchcock’s bizarre and controlling obsessions with his stunningly beautiful leading ladies, such as Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel).

In many ways, both the movie and the marriage are inseparable, but “Hitchcock” would have been a better film had it focused more on one or the other.

The supporting performances are great across the board, especially Johansson, who knowingly plays another era’s version of herself: an actress who grudgingly has come to terms with the fact that she gets the parts she plays as much for her looks as for her talents.

Hopkins is in a really thankless position playing the most iconic director of all time. He is such a good actor that while watching the movie you forget he is Anthony Hopkins, but at the same time you never really believe that he is Alfred Hitchcock.

Mirren gives the movie’s best performance because she is freed from being beholden to history by playing a virtually anonymous, albeit vital, character. She simply embodies a talented woman who is burdened by loving a man who inspires her almost as often as he takes her for granted and breaks her heart.

In spite of its many shortcomings I liked “Hitchcock,” if only as a little sliver of Hollywood folklore. And maybe it only makes sense that a movie about “Psycho” would be a little incoherent. Isn’t that right, mother?

“Hitchcock” is rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material.

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