I regret to say that the filmography of Grandmaster Alfred Hitchcock is one of my more glaring blind spots as a cinephile. I have seen The Birds, and I was lucky enough to see Psycho on a big screen, but my knowledge of the auteur’s work ends there. As such, I wasn’t entirely sure of my qualifications to judge tonight’s movie, though it claims to tell the story behind one of the precious few Hitchcock films I’ve actually seen. Moreover, the film’s middling reviews left me rather unenthusiastic about buying a ticket.
That said, it’s not like the reviews I read were outright terrible. Besides, the pedigree of this cast — and the thought of watching Anthony Hopkins play such an iconic figure — were too good to ignore. At the very least, I thought that Hitchcock deserved its day in court. Turns out the film wasn’t as bad as I had been led to believe, but it wasn’t nearly as good as I had hoped, either.
The good news is that the cast is indeed extraordinary. Hopkins does an especially good job of playing Hitchcock as a creature of impulse. He plays Hitchcock as man who loves to eat, loves to drink, loves to stare at beautiful women, and otherwise indulges whatever primal urge comes to him. More importantly, the film argues that this is precisely what made Hitchcock such a brilliant director. We spend our whole lives in denial or blissful ignorance about the deepest, darkest corners of our minds, but this Hitchcock seems devoted to exploring those parts of the human psyche, for better or worse.
We’ve also got Helen Mirren, who plays Hitchcock’s wife and collaborator in all things, Alma Reville. Mirren and Hopkins are both legendary talents, and watching them play off each other is simply electrifying. They have outstanding chemistry, and Mirren plays Alma as a very strong character in her own right. Alma is a very intelligent woman who’s skilled enough to be a worthy partner for Hitchcock and quick enough to hold her own against his notoriously sharp wit.
Unfortunately, for every exchange of dialogue that flies off the page, there’s one that falls flat on the floor. But I’ll get to the inconsistent screenplay in a moment.
The supporting cast is phenomenal. Toni Collette and Michael Stuhlbarg both turn in great work as Hitchcock’s assistant and manager, respectively. Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel both turn themselves into dead ringers of Janet Leigh and Vera Miles. Kurtwood Smith plays a thoroughly unlikeable douchebag as only he could do, and Ralph freaking Macchio is totally unrecognizable as screenwriter Joseph Stefano.
As for James D’Arcy… god damn. I didn’t think there was an actor alive who could sufficiently imitate Anthony Perkins’ uniquely creepy performance and unassuming look, but D’Arcy fucking nailed it. I could have sworn the filmmakers went back in a time machine and brought Perkins hisownself to make a guest appearance in this film. Damn shame he doesn’t have much screen time, though.
The weak link in the cast is easily Danny Huston, though that’s through no fault of his own. He plays Whitfield Cook, a writer who hopes to get his latest novel adapted by Hitchcock, seducing Alma in the process. Unfortunately, the character fails in large part because he’s portrayed as an irredeemable asshole.
Unfortunately, his love triangle with Mr. and Mrs. Hitchcock takes up an enormous chunk of the movie, which is one of this film’s greatest problems. For one thing, it takes a ton of screen time away from the actual making of Psycho, which makes the film incredibly muddled in terms of theme and plot. Even worse, the movie”s tone is made even more inconsistent by some questionable editing and Danny Elfman’s ostentatious score.
There’s also the matter of Ed Gein, the killer whose crimes inspired Robert Bloch’s novel, which in turn was adapted into Hitchcock’s Psycho. The film tries to explore this backstory, primarily doing so by way of nightmares and hallucinations experienced by Hitchcock. Unfortunately, Michael Wincott fails to make much of an impression as Gein and the character isn’t presented in any way that meshes with the rest of the film. It’s just another misguided distraction in a movie that’s already full of them.
Speaking of which, let’s get back to the infidelity storyline. We know that Alma is far too smart and loyal to seriously start an affair with this prick, so the whole storyline is utterly boring for want of suspense. This is especially disappointing, since the film makes a point of showing the relatively conservative and puritan climate of 1950s society. The movie spends a lot of time bemoaning the steadfast refusal of studios and audiences to embrace anything outside the mainstream, nurturing the entertainment that’s safe and familiar while casting aside those stories that might be unusual and intellectually stimulating.
Unfortunately, the film uses a douchebag censor and a slimy network exec — both totally devoid of nuance — as part of conveying this theme. And lest we forget, this is also the movie with a boring and predictable infidelity subplot taking up so much screen time that the plot can’t go into detail about how groundbreaking Psycho was. The conflict of ambitious and intelligent storytellers struggling against the risk-averse mainstream is a subject very near and dear to my heart, which makes it all the more shameful that this movie tries to express the theme by way of cliches and predictable storytelling. This film can sure as hell talk the talk, but it stumbles the walk something awful.
All told, it’s the cast that saves Hitchcock. Without the top-notch actors and their moments of witty repartee, this film would have been a complete and total failure, instead of merely being a watchable failure. For me, the crowning irony is that this movie — a story about one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema — suffered precisely because director Sacha Gervasi wasn’t up to the task.
With a more capable director at the helm, we might easily have gotten a more focused movie that dared to take a few risks, worthy of its superlative cast. I strongly doubt that this film will get any Oscar buzz; there are already too many better candidates out there and too many more on the way. Even so, if this film somehow manages to beat the odds and get a few nominations, go ahead and give it a rental. Otherwise, don’t bother.