"Hitchcock" Biopic Evokes Screams Of Frustration

In 2012, cinema is still a relatively new phenomenon, an absolute youngling compared to other predominant forms of entertainment – music, books, and sports among them. Film (and its emerging digital counterpart) is still new enough that many of its greats to date will likely be replaced in history books by visionaries to come. The creative and commercial successes of the Welles and Scorceses will never be forgotten, of course, but the fact remains that cinema remains in its infancy. It’s doubtful that many filmmakers from the medium’s first century will be household names in the coming centuries.

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the obvious exceptions. He was in life, and remains in death, a towering figure in Hollywood (and anywhere films are shown), a man who reinvented the art of film construction and spearheaded the growth of multiple, enduring genres. Perhaps most interestingly, Hitchcock’s work got better as he aged, and that’s where Sacha Gervasi’s pseudo-biopic picks up – with the making of “Psycho” in 1960. Right off the heels of “North By Northwest,” which this film correctly notes set the blueprint for the Bond series,” Hitchcock found himself at a creative and, inexplicably, financial dead-end.

The successes of Gervasi’s film are in its depiction of Hitchcock’s relationships, most notably with his wife. Alma Reville (played by Helen Mirren) is widely accepted as having been the backbone of Hitchcock’s career, intertwined with “Hitch’s” creative visions and personal shortcomings. Mirren provides the right amount of elegance and austerity, living her own life but being deeply concerned with the minutiae of her husband’s daily life. Gervasi and writer John J. McLaughlin go out of their way to humanize her, even when we’re not sure if she’s cheating on Hitch with writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). It’s unclear if such marital struggles afflicted Alfred and Alma in real life, but it certainly aids their characterizations onscreen.

Unfortunately, Alma is the standout of the film because we know so little about her in the first place. Portraying real life heavyweights like Hitchcock and Janet Leigh (during the making of a classic, no less) proves to be a much more difficult task, one which the filmmakers aren’t up to. Admirably, Anthony Hopkins does the best he can with the title character, eventually fading away beneath mounds of make-up and prosthetics, but his character is relegated to silly catchphrases and goofy celery-chomping (literally). It’s possible that Hitchcock was that droll Englishman he played on his TV show, but there was certainly more to him. The movie barely goes beyond his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” persona, and its worst moments play up that angle to a nauseating degree.

Hitchcock is written here as a character out of one of his own movies, teeming with dark thoughts and sinister impulses. His onscreen narration at the beginning and end of the film – the breaking of the fourth wall – is fine, but when he disappears into his own psyche, cavorting about with murderer Ed Gein (upon which “Psycho” was based), the picture flirts with self-destruction. We know that Hitchcock had a vivid imagination. We don’t need to literally see it, especially in such a dour, confusing manner. The film continually sells the man himself short. He invented slasher movies. To see him in some bizarre fever dream of a slasher picture without any narrative ramifications is disheartening at best – disgraceful at worst.

The cinematography, too, is antithetical to the visceral black-and-white-ness of “Psycho.” The colors here are oversaturated and at times the film has a distinct made-for-television look. Additionally, most of the supporting cast is unable to capture their real life counterparts. Scarlett Johansson is no Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel’s body of work does nothing to suggest she should be anywhere near a tribute to one of the all-time great filmmakers. Michael Stuhlbarg and Toni Collette do typically good work, but again, it’s because we have no expectations for their characters. James D’Arcy’s uncanny (but brief) portrayal of Anthony Perkins is the exception to the rule. Nearly everything in ”Hitchcock” for which we have a point of reference falls flat. Danny Elfman’s score is nice, but it’s no surprise since it leans so heavily on the works of Bernard Herrmann.

Ultimately, the film is cutesy, which is not a word I’d ever associate with Alfred Hitchcock. The screenplay is so on the nose, and while I appreciated the nods to the real-life controversies over flushing toilets and blinking eyes, I felt as though Gervasi and company were constantly winking at me. “Get it? Get it?” Yeah, I get it. What I don’t get is why you felt the need reduce such an important cinematic figure to weird camera-mugging and poorly realized asides that have nothing to do with the story you’re trying to tell. It’s rare for a biopic to deliver so little insight into its subject. “Hitchcock” plays more like a visual haiku by a first-time filmmaker, and, indeed, this is Gervasi’s first feature film. Hopefully his second will deal with a less revered subject, giving his creative vision a much more suitable arena in which to run free. This wasn’t the right venue.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: November 23, 2012 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Screenwriter: John McLaughlin
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, Toni Collette, Jessica Biel, Michael Stuhlbarg, James D’Arcy, Michael Wincott, Richard Portnow, Kurtwood Smith
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material)