Hitchcock would be a perfectly serviceable movie for someone who has never seen Psycho, never once heard a single anecdote about one of the most famous directors in cinematic history, and who could honestly care less either way. For anyone who does even have the slightest passing knowledge of the man and his work, this extremely fast and loose bio-pic crafted solely to net Oscars for the leading actors involved is a goofy, tooth grating, patience trying exercise to sit through.
Anthony Hopkins plays Alfred Hitchcock as he attempts to follow up his action-adventure North By Northwest with something a bit grittier and nastier. He sets his sights on adapting Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, which was loosely based on the real life murders of infamous serial killer Ed Gein. Met with a combination of apathy from Paramount Pictures executives and beset with constant pressure from the censorship board, Hitchcock funds the film almost entirely on his own. During the filming, Hitch’s paranoia that his writer wife (Helen Mirren) might be cheating on him reaches a fever pitch (literally in one of the film’s most unintentionally hilarious sequences), and all the way up until the last second the director questions if the film could even work at all as art or entertainment.
The direction from a way over his head Sacha Gervasi (Anvil!) and the base level script work to sabotage the actors in any way possible. There’s a very good reason why this film is being released through a subsidiary of Fox rather than from Paramount (who originally produced the film and are made to look like demons here) or Universal (who ultimately distributed the film but doesn’t get a single mention here despite some of the film being shot on their backlots). It’s probably because they wanted nothing to do with a film that turns the making of a beloved classic into an illogical screwball comedy that’s even out of time and place with the era Psycho was made in.
It’s the kind of script where every line is expository to a fault like when news reporters flat out tell Hitch to his face how old he is and question if he has anything new left in him or the uniquely ghastly moment where Hitchcock turns to his wife and refers to him as a “Hitchcock blonde” even though he never once would have said that in his life. He also sees Ed Gein in his dreams as sort of a Harvey-styled inspirational figure when Hitch never really focused that intently on Gein as the subject because the source he was pulling from in the first place barely cared that much about it. Seeing that the film is ultimately too cheap and aiming too low, we can’t even see scenes from Psycho, only snippets of the music during an honest to God “let’s make a montage” montage, or even watch them shoot on anything that even slightly resembles the set. It’s painful to look at if you have a deep appreciation for one of the greatest thrillers in the history of cinema. It makes Hitch into an impish creeper instead of a witty tyrant, and the movie around it suffers terribly for it.
Gervasi tries far too hard to inject the film with obscure film nerd jokes like having Paramount execs always walking around and talking about how the next Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis film will be the film to turn their bad luck around or people almost literally talking about how every aspect of a film is Freudian, which makes this film EXTRA SPECIAL. Wink wink nudge nudge. These moments are more insufferably pandering than they are actually funny. It’s not that a great comedy can’t be made from this material – and make ZERO mistake that this is anything other than a comedy – because Hitchcock himself was a smartass jokester. The filmmakers get that correct, but literally not a single other thing.
The female roles are so threadbare they aren’t worth talking about, which is a shame since Mirren and Jessica Biel (as actress Vera Miles) are genuinely trying to make everything work. Mirren only really gets to huff, glower, console, and repudiate Hitch whenever the script calls for it. It’s not the kind of performance anyone can really add to since it’s all on the page. Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh also suffers because there’s no role there to be played. She has two settings: cute and menaced and that’s it. They are afterthoughts in typical romantic comedy fashion, making the notion that this is at all any sort of biopic even more preposterous. Anyone with a library card or access to Google could find out more about these women from searching for five minutes than they could in all 98 minutes here.
That really only leaves Hopkins, who will undoubtedly get the same push that led Meryl Streep to Oscar gold for the equally foolish film built around her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher last year in The Iron Lady. To Hopkins credit – and this probably sounds a bit backwards to say – he isn’t even trying to play Hitchcock. Sure, he’s doing the weird lip thing that Hitch had and he has some padding under his shirt, but the voice isn’t nearly the same and he isn’t nearly as volatile as the director’s reputation suggests. It’s actually a perfect choice since the film very obviously isn’t trying to be word for word a story about its subject anyway. It stops just shy of impersonation, which is what a good portrayal of a historical figure should always strive to do. It adds a certain degree of humanity, and one that the rest of the film all too sadly decides to trample all over.
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson
Directed by: Sacha Gervasi
Top image: A scene from Hitchcock. Courtesy Fox Searchlight.