Many can relate to the childhood experience, as at Disneyland or the department store, of getting wise to fakery. "Daddy, that's not Snow White!" "Mommy, Santa doesn't wear sneakers." Well, film fans may feel a pang of déjà vu when they sit down to Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock, which purports to revive the weighty filmmaker forever to be known as "The Master of Suspense."
In the age of remakes and reboots and re-issues, Hollywood has gotten wise to the idea of revisiting iconic stars of the past, as with last year's My Week with Marilyn. That film had the emotional hook of a wide-eyed young adult star-struck by a sex goddess and the movie biz, whereas Hitchcock—based on Stephen Rebello's non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho—hangs its hat on marital strain and the artistic and financial gamble that was Hitchcock's masterpiece Psycho.
For this latest feat of reenactment cinema, we get Anthony Hopkins as the corpulent filmmaker, Helen Mirren as his wife and trusted screenwriting consultant Alma Reville, Scarlett Johansson and James D'Arcy as Psycho stars Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, and so on. Essentially, "Hitchcock" takes us from the 1959 premiere of North by Northwest through pre-production and production of Psycho to its 1960 premiere.
Along the way, John McLaughlin's script arguably doles out as much misinformation as information. Some of the famous trivia about the film is here, including skirmishes with censor Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith) and composer Bernard Herrmann (we almost never heard those famous slasher strings during "the shower scene"). In this respect, film buffs can feel vindicated in their knowledge, while others can get something of an education in a seminal horror film.
Most crucially, Hitchcock explores the key role played by Reville in Hitchcock's career, as well as her long-suffering tolerance of Hitchcock's obsessions with actresses. The film also creates drama with a speculative budding romance between Reville and occasional screenwriting collaborator Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). In a wilder stretch of the imagination, Hitchcock depicts Psycho's serial-killing inspiration Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) as being regularly envisioned by the director, who at one point remarks to Gein, "Oh, not now, Ed. It's really not the time." Wait, is this Hitchcock or Dexter?
Though that conceit goes too far, it does, to a point, productively dramatize how a director "lives with" his story—dreams and daydreams about it—during production. At its best, Hitchcock reminds audiences not only of the risk represented by Psycho, but its reinvigorating quality. Hitch tells Alma, in reference to their early years of filmmaking, "I just want to feel that kind of freedom again."
That's a too-rare moment of genuine insight in a film generally pleased to be entertainingly glib (the director to Perkins: "You may call me ‘Hitch.' Hold the ‘cock'"), hero-puncturing (Hitch comically gulps wine, and peeps, a la Norman Bates, at Jessica Biel's Vera Miles), or blunt in an unintentionally humorous way (the Paramount studio head hollering, "I demand to see some footage!").
Hopkins is, of course, a likeable actor, but his power is muted by pounds of latex, and regardless he doesn't quite capture the depths of Hitch's drollery. Mirren, miscast as Reville, comes off too glamorous and modern to play this intellectual used to being overlooked. (In HBO's The Girl, Toby Jones, wearing considerably less special-effects makeup, creates a more convincing emotional portrait of Hitch, with Staunton a more credible Alma.) On balance, Hitchcock is about as entertaining and as trustworthy as a tabloid.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]