Monday, November 26, 2012

Movie Review: Hitchcock

Directed by: Sacha Gervasi.
Written by: John J. McLaughlin based on the book by Stephen Rebello.
Starring: Anthony Hopkins (Alfred Hitchcock), Helen Mirren (Alma Reville), Scarlett Johansson (Janet Leigh), Danny Huston (Whitfield Cook), Toni Collette (Peggy), Michael Stuhlbarg (Lew Wasserman), Michael Wincott (Ed Gein), Jessica Biel (Vera Miles), James D'Arcy (Anthony Perkins), Richard Portnow (Barney Balaban), Kurtwood Smith (Geoffrey Shurlock), Ralph Macchio (Joseph Stefano).

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the greatest filmmakers in history – and now for the second time in as many months, he is subject to a film biography unworthy of him. HBO’s The Girl was a one note film that saw Hitchcock as a pervert who tormented his leading lady, Tippi Hendren, through two movies because she rejected his sexual advances. I don’t argue much with the fact that the movie saw Hitchcock as a pervert, just the one-note, repetitive way in which the movie was structured. The new film Hitchcock, which is playing in theaters and not TV, is not all that much better than The Girl – although it is more entertaining, and forgiving of Hitchcock, the man, and more in awe of Hitchcock the filmmaker. If one of the problems with The Girl was how narrowly focused it was, than the problem with Hitchcock is how much crap they try and cram in it. I am usually not one to complain about a movie supposedly based on a true story taking liberties with the facts – normally it’s done at the service of the story – but the crap they make up here is simply silly.

The movie stars Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock, and opens with the famed director making another crowd pleasing hit – North By Northwest. At the premiere, a reporter asks Hitchcock if it wouldn’t be smart of him simply to retire – he is already one of the greatest filmmakers in history, and has over 40 films on his resume, but he’s getting old, no? As if to shut this one man up, Hitchcock decides to completely change up his M.O. on his next film – but needs to find the right material. He settles on Robert Bloch’s book Psycho, loosely based on the exploits of Ed Gein, a psychopathic, Midwest mama’s boy. The studio refuses to fund the movie, so Hitchcock puts up his house to fund it himself. The censorship board doesn’t want to give him a seal of approval on the screenplay, but he plows ahead anyway. Hitchcock wants to do something different this time around, and damn it, he’s going to do just that.

Hopkins, who doesn’t look or sound much like the real Hitchcock, is at his best when he’s playing Hitchcock’s public persona – the showman who liked to play with audience’s emotions. Hitchcock was not just a great filmmaker, but also a great salesman, and when Hopkins is playing the Hitchcock world saw at that time, he is in fine form, and immensely entertaining. But when the film tries to get to the darker places in Hitchcock’s mind, it finds itself on less sure footing. Like The Girl, the movie says that Hitchcock was in love with all his leading ladies – although in this film, it does stop somewhere in the realm of fantasy, as he never acts on it. So we have Vera Miles, who Hitchcock felt betrayed by when she had to drop out of Vertigo because she got pregnant, but more so because she didn’t like being controlled by him. Jessica Biel, who plays Miles, never finds the right note to play her – unlike the real Miles, she leaves almost no impression. Scarlett Johansson, who plays Janet Leigh, fares better – no she doesn’t much look like Leigh, but surprisingly she captures that almost innocent sexuality that Leigh had about her – the good girl who finally breaks the rules. Leigh takes Hitchcock’s leering in stride, and never lets it distract her.

It seems like the main reason why the filmmakers want to make this movie is to acknowledge, as few have, the role Hitchcock’s wife Alma (Helen Mirren) played in his career. She worked with him on all of his movies – often without credit – but did just about everything with him. She was the most important collaborator Hitchcock had – at least in the view of this movie – and she has long ago grown to accept Hitchcock’s fantasy life with his leading ladies. But Alma, as played by Mirren, is a little tired of being shunted to the background – of only being important because of who she is married to. However, the subplot of her collaboration with another writer – played by Danny Huston – and Hitchcock beginning to suspect the two of them of having an affair – is underwritten, and seems to have been added to try and add even more conflict between the two of them. It wasn’t necessary.

The film has other problems as well. James D’Arcy is very good at playing Norman Bates – the problem is that the screenplay doesn’t seem to realize that Norman Bates and Anthony Perkins are two separate people – and even in the scenes where Perkins is supposed to be himself, D’Arcy makes him too creepy. Then there is the ridiculous addition of some strange fantasy “therapy” sessions where Hitchcock imagines himself talking to Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) himself. What they hell that was supposed to accomplish, I’ll never know.

In short, Hitchcock is a mess. It is at times a well-acted and entertaining mess, but it’s a mess nonetheless. Hitchcock deserves a better biography made of him – as does Alma for that matter. The two we’ve gotten in the last two months do neither of them – nor anyone around them – justice.

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