starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette
screenplay by John J. McLaughlin, based on Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello
directed by Sacha Gervasi
by Walter Chaw It's hard to know where to even begin to pick apart Sacha Gervasi's dishonourable drag show Hitchcock, a schlock domestic melodrama with Anthony Hopkins delivering a freak impersonation of Alfred Hitchcock from under a ton of prosthetics that make him look not like Sir Alfred, but like Jim Sturgess as a heroic celestial from Cloud Atlas. Start with the framing story, in which Wisconsin necrophiliac and amateur taxidermist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott, one of the only inspired bits of casting in the entire benighted project) acts as Hitch's father confessor, greatest confidant, and Freudian conduit to the darker recesses of the auteur's soul. He appears, see, the way Dustin Hoffman's imaginary monk appeared to Milla Jovovich's Joan of Arc in Luc Besson's The Messenger: In one scene, Hitch, on a couch, admits to Ed that he has unwholesome thoughts about his leading ladies now and again. It's that obsession for the "Hitchcock blonde" that leads to the discovery of a few sticky head shots in Hitch's den, and for the everlasting resentment of mousy wife Alma (not-mousy Helen Mirren), who decides to have her own fling with failed writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston)--one of several credited writers on Hitchcock's Stage Fright and Strangers on a Train, though Hitchcock doesn't mention that. It doesn't mention much. I suspect that's because no one involved knows anything, which is quite extraordinary when you consider that possibly no other director in the history of Hollywood has had more written about him than Alfred Hitchcock.
Lo, it's not long before Hitch realizes how much he needs Alma's help to punch up his latest project, Psycho, and for Alma to realize that good ol' Whit is just using her, toying with her aging emotions, to get Hitch to read his awful screenplays. Alma, see, is shamed back into the arms of our lovable letch, glimpsed in a humiliating film's most humiliating moment humbly thanking Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) for being "a professional" with her amorous spouse. It's more nettling, as in the scene previous, Alma, in Mirren's Oscar moment, delivers an impassioned monologue about how, as a woman, she has a right to have fun and not always be nursing her husband. She's punished for her stupidity. She's punished, essentially, for not knowing that Psycho is going to be a substantial hit, and she and this Hitchcock are reduced to figures mainly interested in the bottom line. To hear Alfred fucking Hitchcock bash Vertigo for its low grosses would have been the moment I checked out if I hadn't already checked out when Ed Gein became Hitchcock's secret sharer. I mean, seriously: fuck this movie. More than that, fuck it for the part where Janet Leigh and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) make "I told you so" eyes after the filming of Psycho's shower sequence, which not only fails to address the Saul Bass controversy but also insinuates that that's ol' Hitch in there doing the thrusting and stabbing, just like Mel Gibson driving them nails into Christ. Hitchcock is just awful.
It's all dime-store psychoanalysis, if you'll pardon the pun, wrapped around a genuinely disturbing attempt to recast Hitchcock as a harmless old guy intent on saving his marriage on the eve of, of all things, him "discovering" Tippi Hedren and essentially torturing her through The Birds and Marnie. Hitchcock scholars will spin themselves into a fine powder spotting everything that's tonally or factually wrong about the piece (the movie implies that Psycho was shot on the Paramount lot, something that will come as some surprise to visitors of the Universal Studios tour); others will avoid it because it looks exactly like the kind of populist, elder-sploitative happy horseshit that it is. There are jokes about Hitchcock's weight and alcohol consumption; there's a moment where he praises his secretary/reader/girl Friday Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette) and she almost cries for his tenderness; and, for God's sake, there's a suggestion that Hitch had a spyhole drilled into Vera Miles's dressing room, diminishing Norman Bates's use of the same device's metaphoric value in Psycho as a camera indicting audience voyeurism while introducing into the ecosystem this vile oversimplification of Hitchcock's obsessions. I like, too, Breen successor Geoff Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith) declaring that no toilet had ever been shown in an American film up to that point when, you know, that's not true, either, and Shurlock probably knew it. There's enough "there" there without having to make shit up, is what I'm saying. And if' you're keeping score, the bad guys in this picture are people who don't know that Psycho is PSYCHO!, old ladies wanting to be loved, and censors.
Then there's the ridiculous Hopkins, never certain whether he wants to be the jovial, mordant television personality or the pathetic old guy in the raincoat, muttering about and stuffing his face with tins of imported-meat mush during midnight gorge-sessions. He's not inhabiting a character, he's collecting a paycheck by shorthanding the two popular conceptions of Hitch; Hopkins had more life, frankly, as the papa-wolf in The Wolf Man. Mirren's Alma would have been more interesting had Hitchcock not beaten her down like some folks insist Hitchcock himself beat his leading ladies down (irony), and there's a promising introduction to Tony Perkins (James D'Arcy, bang on) that just becomes the next unbelievably frustrating thing in this piece of shit when he's immediately marginalized--made into a gay joke, really--and shunted to the periphery. It has the requisite end card that reveals that Psycho was popular, but not how popular, or why, or the way it changed everything about how Americans went to the movies. Hitchcock doesn't broach the social change that made it possible, or the entire range of events and setbacks that led to its making, or this period in the title subject's life. In truth, Hitchcock is about an old couple on the verge of decrepitude deciding to make a go of their marriage because they have no other choice. Yeah, it's awful. And smug besides. What a shame.
This movie finally came to a theater near me, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. It's not about Saul Bass or Tony Perkins or minutae like Whitfield Cook's previous screenwriting credits, or even about the impact of "Psycho." It's about Alma and about highlighting her role. Gervasi doesn't buy that Hitchcock was as big a creep as Tippi Hedren claims he was, and perhaps he wasn't in the period depicted here. Watching this film back to back with the HBO film "The Girl," if either is to be believed, suggests that post-Psycho, Hitchcock fell progressively further down the rabbit hole.
Posted by: Richard | December 24, 2012 at 12:20 AM