Tuesday, April 2, 2013

"Hitchcock" is Pretty Humdrum

One of the most intriguing, but often frustrating subgenres of film are biopics about notable directors or behind-the-scenes exposes of how famous films were made. There haven't been many, but once in a while someone will try to pay homage to one of the old greats, and Hollywood does love movies about Hollywood. We get an "Ed Wood" or a "Shadow of the Vampire" if we're lucky, or a "My Life With Marilyn" if we're not. The trouble is that the filmmakers responsible for these movies are rarely in the same league with the directors or stars that they're trying to honor, and their reverence for their subjects can get in the way of presenting a compelling picture of the artists. These complaints are definitely applicable to "Hitchcock," the recent movie about the tumultuous production of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."

Now this should be fascinating subject matter, about how Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), a successful director starting to feel his age, took a bold gamble and financed the production of a movie that nobody wanted to make, resulting in a smash hit that became one of the most influential horror movies of all time. "Hitchcock" dutifully hits all the required historical marks, including scenes of Hitchcock arguing with the censors, reassuring Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johanssen) about the shower scene, briefly touching on his affair with actress Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), and finally showing off Hitchcock's skill as an impresario as he cooked up the famous publicity campaign for "Psycho." This is all handled in a very straightforward, businesslike manner, and though it's hard to find fault with any of the performances or the casting, nobody is particularly convincing either. I suspect only movie nerds who already know Hitchcock's work will be particularly interested in watching these events play out.

On the other hand, it often feels like the making of "Psycho" is just the backdrop for the drama playing out between Hitchcock and Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), his wife and vital collaborator. A huge portion of "Hitchcock" is concerned with their marriage troubles. Reville, feeling lonely and unappreciated, takes up an offer to collaborate on a screenplay with writer friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). This leads Hitchcock to suspect that she's having an affair. He starts having recurring revenge and murder fantasies, some involving Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the murderer who was the inspiration for "Psycho." Helen Mirren's Reville is absolutely wonderful, and the best thing about the movie, so it's no mystery why the filmmakers would want to keep her at the center of the story. Many of the best scenes involve her and Hopkins' Hitchcock just having conversations, fussing over work, and Hitchcock's diet, and day to day frustrations. Everything outside this immediate sphere just feels like a distraction.

"Hitchcock" tries to do too many things at once. At its core, it wants to be an easy, lighthearted look at the working partnership of Hitchcock and Reville, and the making of "Psycho." But then there are the subplots with Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, which touch on more serious issues. And the darker elements with the Ed Gein fantasies. And the whole business with the affair that keeps trying to push parallels between Hitchcock's work and his home life, which are not very convincing. And then there are the bookends that frame the story like an episode of Hitchcock's old television show. And the nudge-nudge wink-wink references and in-jokes. There are a lot of clever ideas, but only a few of them that work as intended. And to my chagrin, there were only a few scenes, including one involving Hitchcock taking in the first audience responses to "Psycho," that really said much of anything about Alfred Hitchcock as a filmmaker.

The common complaint I've heard about "Hitchcock" is that it's too complimentary, and that it sanitizes many of Hitchcock's personal faults. HBO's "The Girl," based on the memoirs of Tippi Hedron, portrays Hitchcock as a tyrant and borderline sadist. However, I don't see any problem with this more sympathetic version existing too, especially for the purposes of a film with such small and pleasant ambitions. I guess my biggest criticism of the film is that the ambitions are so small. "Hitchcock" feels like the modest cable television movie you would make about Janet Leigh or Alma Reville, not something that should bear a title with as much weight to it as "Hitchcock," or sold as a film that chronicles the birth of a movie as psychologically rich as "Psycho."

If you're in the mood for a nostalgic, occasionally romantic period piece that uses Hollywood as a backdrop, and you are a little familiar with Alfred Hitchcock, then "Hitchcock" is a perfectly enjoyable piece of light entertainment. If you're looking for something that really gives you an idea of what making "Psycho" entailed, or what Hitchcock was like as a filmmaker, I suggest sticking with the existing books and documentaries.

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