Hitchcock (***)

8

There’s a lot of different ways that one could approach a biopic of legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, but director Sacha Gervasi has certainly found a unique one here. ‘Hitchcock’ is a surprisingly whimsical and amusing tale of the director struggling to make ‘Psycho’ as he goes through a rough patch with his wife. That’s going to come as a surprise for a lot of viewers, and while it possibly hurts the flick in terms of its Oscar chances, it doesn’t keep the film from being enjoyable. I definitely wish that the focus had been different for ‘Hitchcock’, but a combination of good acting and solid direction keep this completely watchable. Much like ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’, this is another would be Oscar player that’s likely not going to be much of a contender and compares to ‘My Week with Marilyn’, but it’s another one that I liked a bit more than the average critic. I laughed much more than I expected, and while I’m aware of its flaws, this is still a pleasing work that will have an appeal to older viewers especially. Anthony Hopkins is amusing as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren is very good as his wife, but both, along with the entire supporting cast (which are all solid), could have been better.

For Alfred Hitchcock (Hopkins), he’s dealing with potentially being put out to pasture. His last film ‘North By Northwest’ was well liked, but he’s looking for a new movie that will capture his interest. After a time, he finds that in the novel ‘Psycho’, but Paramount doesn’t seem to think it’s a project worth undertaking, something his wife Alma Reville (Mirren) concurs with. When she sees how passionate this adaptation has made Hitchcock, she gets behind him. The studio won’t give him the money, so Hitchcock finances it himself, raising the stakes for this film. As he begins working on it, he becomes obsessed, not just with the project, but also with his leading lady Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) as well as the serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), who ‘Psycho’ is based on. Gein literally invades his dreams, but even more disturbing for Hitch is how Alma appears to be drifting from him towards her friend and writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Thus we spend time both on the set of ‘Psycho’ and also at Hitchock’s home as he becomes more and more suspicious of Alma and Whit. The former is far more interesting than the latter, and the balance sadly leans towards the relationship element more than the behind the scenes intrigue, but it’s a mixture that still provides more to like than to dislike.

The performances here are a curious thing. Everyone is solid, but just about everyone should have been a touch better than they turned out. Anthony Hopkins is enjoyable as the master of suspense, but he plays Hitchcock even larger than you’d expect him to. Compared to the work Daniel Day-Lewis just did in ‘Lincoln’ (even if they’re very different animals) and it’s hard to not have wished that Hopkins was able to raise the bar just a little bit higher than he did. Helen Mirren beats him soundly as Alma, but this is the type of role she can do in her sleep. She gives the best performance in the flick, but this is hardly Mirren doing top notch work. She’s very good, but not great. Both could be in play for Oscar nominations, but neither are threats at all to win. Of the supporting players, I think they all were wasted to one degree or another, but Scarlett Johansson and James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins are the most memorable. Toni Collette as Hitchcock’s secretary and Michael Stuhlbarg as his lawyer are underused, while Danny Huston is poorly served by his subplot. The rest of the cast includes Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, Kurtwood Smith as censor Geoffrey Shurlock, and Ralph Maccio as screenwriter Joseph Stefano. It’s an ensemble that turns in good work, but one that perhaps should have turned in great work.

Director Sacha Gervasi has made a colorful but ultimately no frills film here. His documentary ‘Anvil! The Story of Anvil’ had much more life to it, but he’s making an effective transition to dramatic storytelling. Scribe John J. McLaughlin’s adaptation of the Stephen Rebello book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” is solid but unspectacular. Solid but unspectacular pretty much sums up everything below the line here. My main issue is that Gervasi and McLaughlin decide to focus too much on the Alma/Whit relationship as opposed to the ‘Psycho’ set, which gets shortchanged. We also learn far too little about Alfred Hitchcock himself, with his fantasies with Gein adding nothing to the flick. There are missed opportunities glare on display here, but luckily the script is peppered with enough humor to keep things very likable.

‘Hitchcock’ is not the biopic we were expecting at all, and it’s not nearly as good as it could have been, but it’s not something to be solidly dismissed either. The Academy might still give the film a nomination or two, but it could easily be shut out too. The flick is more apt as a piece of popcorn entertainment about a famous director than as a major awards player. The movie opens in a few weeks, and while I’m recommending it to you all, I’m doing it with the caveat that this isn’t really an Oscar contender in any major way. Best Picture is a long shot, and only Anthony Hopkins/Helen Mirren represent real opportunities for nominations (with Mirren more likely than Hopkins), but it’s a movie that’s cute enough to survive without that. I think it’ll do good business but fade from memory before too long. Don’t go into ‘Hitchcock’ expecting anything great and you’ll likely be satisfied. Go in expecting greatness and you’ll likely be let down. It’s as simple as that…

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