Film review: ‘Hitchcock’ a Superficial Look at Master of Suspense

The trailer and ads for Hitchcock are slick and enticing. At first glance, so is the film, but ultimately it’s the hungry-soon-after equivalent of what passes for Chinese food in much of this country.

Why? Well, let’s start with the casting of its leads. There are few actors more appealing in the right roles than Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, but here they are decidedly miscast. Hopkins does his best through layers of prosthetic facial makeup and a fat suit to give us the legendary director, but the effort taken to make him look like Alfred Hitchcock proves too distracting to overcome. And Mirren is just too glamorous – not only in her own looks but in the way she’s often costumed by Julie Weiss – to play Hitchcock’s decidedly dowdy (and physically much smaller) wife Alma Reville.

It’s true Mirren puts Reville’s strength and intelligence front and center where it belongs – by all accounts her husband didn’t make a move without her while preparing his pictures – but the characterization is still subjected to the rumor-as-fact philosophy apparently adapted by the film’s director Sacha Gervasi. That is displayed in what is likely a cooked-up almost-affair with the writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston doing his wolfish best), which is supposed to underscore the personal neglect Reville supposedly suffered at the hands of blonde-actress-obsessed Hitch.

(Actor/producer Norman Lloyd, who worked with him, told the New York Times that the director “never disavowed the whole ‘Hitchcock blonde’ concept because it was good for publicity. ‘Hitch and Sam Goldwyn,’ he said, ‘were the best self-promoters in the history of Hollywood.’”)

That’s another part of this film that feels forced, despite mountains of articles and books on the subject over the years. No, Hitchcock doesn’t condemn its subject the way HBO’s The Girl recently did, but we still get to play in the “he’s a pervert” muck as we see Hopkins peering through a hole in the wall much as Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates did in Psycho.

This film, and so many of the words written about him over the years, basically assert that if we want to know the man we merely need to look at themes and situations in his works. The problem with that should be obvious: artists aren’t merely creating autobiographies when they build a story; even when there are personal elements in a tale there are also observations and imagination.

The movie is partially – very partially – based on Stephen Rebello’s entertaining book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.” But John J. McLaughlin’s script veers into the world of pseudo-psychology that irreparably damages this picture, including scenes where Hitchcock and Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) – the real-life killer who inspired Robert Bloch’s 1959 “Psycho” novel – interact like two wacked-out soul mates.

Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography, Danny Elfman’s score and Judy Becker’s production design do their best to keep us looking at this warped world for little more than an hour-and-a-half; in addition to Huston there’s some strong supporting play from Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, Toni Collette as the filmmaker’s longtime personal assistant Peggy Robertson and Michael Stuhlbarg as agent extraordinaire Lew Wasserman.

Those positive attributes aren’t enough to raise Hitchcock out of its superficial and ultimately unsatisfactory state, though. Better to go watch his movies – the Belcourt Theatre is about to present several of his works – than wallow in the conjecture-filled silliness that fuels this film.

Hitchcock (www.hitchcockthemovie.com) opens in Nashville today at the Regal Green Hills Stadium 16, 3815 Green Hills Village Dr. (www.regmovies.com). Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material, 98 min. Directed by Sacha Gervasi; written by John J. McLaughlin, partially based on the book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” by Stephen Rebello. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Danny Huston, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jessica Biel, James D’Arcy, Michael Wincott, Richard Portnow and Kurtwood Smith.

 

*Photos By Suzanne Tenner courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).