Just as Fox made it easy for people to mainline James Bond movies in the lead-up to the release of “Skyfall” by putting out that beautiful Bond 50 box set, Universal has made it easy for people to take a crash course in Alfred Hitchcock by releasing their retrospective box of his films on Blu-ray. Unfortunately, the Bond 50 box set put “Skyfall” in a perfect context to be enjoyed, but comparing even the least of Hitchcock’s films to Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” isn’t going to do this new film any favors.
If you’d asked me for my reaction to “Hitchcock” as I walked out of the theater, it would have been mildly negative, but the more I’ve thought about it, the less I like it. Gervasi was the director of the wonderful documentary “Anvil: The Story Of Anvil,” and as a screenwriter, he’s responsible for Spielberg’s “The Terminal” and a small indie called “Henry’s Crime,” which I didn’t see. I liked “Anvil” so much that I’ve been curious to see what he could do as a director with a great script. And now, the wait continues.
I’ve read Stephen Rebello’s book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho,’ and it’s a well-written, well-researched look at the director and the production of one of his most famous films, but Rebello’s book doesn’t really feel like a story that demands to be told as a film. It wasn’t the most demanding process in Hitchcock’s career, nor is it a film that reveals Hitchcock’s own inner life to the degree that, say, “Vertigo” does. So why tell this story as a film? And if you are going to tell it, why lie about so much of what actually occurred if you can’t even come up with a compelling drama with your falsehoods?
It’s the question I had walking in, and the film does nothing to answer it. John J. McLaughlin’s script focuses primarily on the tension between Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Alma (Helen Mirren), who was a key creative collaborator with her husband. What’s strange is that for a film that is ostensibly about the making of “Psycho,” there’s a distinct lack of “Psycho” in the film. There’s talk about it, sure, and we see a few cursory sequences like a startlingly on-the-nose job interview with screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) and another wildly unsubtle moment with Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy), and there are a few on-set moments, including a recreation of the shooting of the shower scene that seems completely at odds with actual accounts of how that was accomplished. Overall, though, “Psycho” seems to exist only at the edge of things, which couldn’t have made it easy for Gervasi as a filmmaker.
Unfortunately, the ways he and McLaughlin have filled in the gaps strike me as profoundly phony. There’s a running thread in the film where Hitchcock speaks to Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), who basically appears as Hitchcock’s spirit animal, that seem profoundly wrong-headed. It’s like the filmmakers are trying to make the case that Hitchcock began to identify with the real-life murderer as well as the fictionalized version, Norman, and it’s such a cheap, specious connection that it’s insulting to both Hitchcock and the viewer in equal measure. The majority of the film is given over to moments where characters speak in theme, over-articulating the ideas that Gervasi is trying to push in the film. Hitchcock whines about never winning an Oscar while he and Alma fight about how crucial she is to his process, and in all of it, I never believed one second of what they said.
Part of the problem is that the make-up worn by Hopkins basically drowns any good work he might be doing as Hitchcock. He might be dazzling in the role, but with his features immobilized by the prosthetic work, there’s no way to tell. The one good thing I can say about his work is that he gets the physicality of a fat man right, particularly one who is self-conscious about his weight. But the voice and the actually mannerisms all feel like impression, not an actor actually inhabiting the role. Hitchcock is one of the most photographed filmmakers of all time. We all know what he looked like and sounded like, and Hopkins is never able to push past that surface to reveal anything else about the man. Helen Mirren is fine as Alma, but again… she’s saddled by a script that couldn’t be more obvious. Her temptation takes the form of Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), another screenwriter who wants to collaborate with her, knowing full well what it means to Hitchcock. The way the film connects underlying psychology to surface behavior is laughable. In the single sequence where Stefano appears, he talks to Hitchcock about how he’d love to write the film, then starts immediately talking about his own mommy issues. When Perkins meets with Hitchcock about playing Norman, he’s so over-the-top campy closeted gay that of course he gets the job playing a person hiding secrets about themselves. It’s insulting, and its not the way anyone actually behaves. Jessica Biel plays Vera Miles, and she lays out her own relationship with Hitchcock is very stark terms when talking to Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), saying she refused the lead in “Vertigo” and that led to Hitch ruining her career. It’s so preposterously direct, and I don’t buy that the people in the film had this sort of perspective on themselves or on Hitchcock. Johansson is stranded as Leigh, and I felt bad for her while watching. There’s nothing for her to play, no insight in the writing, and she comes off stilted and ridiculous as a result.
This is one of those films where every single thing about it rubbed me the wrong way, and by the end, I was just eager for it to be finished. Empty of authenticity, antiseptic, and false from beginning to end, this isn’t even as good as a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, as someone called it tonight on Twitter. This is biography by way of bullshit, and a major waste of all the undeniable talent involved.
“Hitchcock” is open now in limited release.