I supposed at this point we should half expect the limp-hearted, biographical schlock that is annually rolled out on its gurney into the pseudo-art houses so some name actor can mug an impersonation of some proclaimed iconic sort for the Academy Award voters. Last year it was Meryl Streep, maked-up as Margaret Thatcher playing the life of Thatcher-as-bore. This year, Anthony Hopkins slaps on the skin prosthetics for a turn as one of the world’s great directors, who, if he saw this film, would surely be doing a few turns himself – in his grave.
Based on Stephen Rebello’s book about the making of Psycho, Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock is a kind of scatterbrained distillation of some of the subtexts of that classical film – Freudian sexuality, the depraved allure of the voyeur – and slips them into the life of the director. In Bio-pic land, all art is autobiography, and in Hitchcock, the director is peeping out through holes in the walls at his leading ladies like his stalking motel attendant. There’s no dead mother in the attic, but Hitchcock does “mommy-fy” his wife, Alma Reville (Hilen Mirren), the director’s collaborator- and pamperer-in-chief.
This may all have some bearing on Hitch’s true life, but the problem is that in Hitchcock, it is all played up as a hammy goof or fumbling melodrama. Sacha Gervasi seems to trying to make a film that is both charming and humorous and softly poignant. And while there is something of interest to the way Hitch and Alma’s relationship comes across in the film, their creative and emotional sparring and mutual reliance, that element of the film drowns in the drab monotony of the rest. Sure, you could call cute and appealingly populist, but I just found I had no patience for any of it, what will all the silly little winks at the camera, the Perry Mason cut-away shots, and entirely muddled attempt at penetrating the mind of the master of suspense.
The problem here is Hitch. It is difficult to imagine how the eternally-fetching Mirren, playing Alma, a woman of grace, poise, and wit, ever wound up with the pokey little tyrant whose foul moods send him scurrying for the fridge to shovel caviar into his jowls. As Alma and Hitch hit the bumpy road, Whitefield Cook (Danny Huston), a hack screenwriter, tries to sweep Alma up in some soap opera-y intrigue away from the set. On set, there’s the opposite of sexual tension unfolding among Scarlett Johansson’s breathy Janet Leigh and Toni Collette’s dazed-and-confused Peggy Robertson.
If you are looking for clues to Hitchcock’s badness, look no further than Michael Wincott, who plays Ed Gein, the madman murder whose real life bad deeds inspired the book Psycho, which inspired Hitchcock’s movie. Here Gein is a Kerouac-looking apparition, who shows up unannounced at random to toy with Hitch’s apparent secret taste for, as Anthony Burgess’ Alex would put it, a little of the old “ultra-violence.” Ed Gein is the inner psychological narrator, the devil on the shoulder, the corny character who comes across like a villain in the children’s show Wishbone. Ed Gein is the kind of unessential non-character and hackneyed narrative tool that bad directors need to push along a film when they have no real ideas. He may not really be on screen, but you can feel Hitchcock’s real presence here, sticking his nose up at it at it all.