Like a piece of cake that tastes sickeningly sweet, or a date gone wrong at the last moment with a careless thought or deed, Hitchcock is a film that can’t quite satisfy, despite the overwhelming promise of the story, big name stars or setting.
Hitchcock revolves around the making of the film Psycho, from Alfred Hitchcock’s (Anthony Hopkins) collaboration with his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) and difficulties with the studio, through his working with actors (Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh) and dealing with jealousy over Alma’s innocent involvement with another man (Danny Huston). What is often a mildly interesting glimpse into the filmmaking process of Alfred Hitchcock is really much stronger as a study of his relationship with his wife. Hitchcock also deals with the pain of aging, the potential for irrelevance and the never-ending problems of ego that dominate the successful creative. Though a lot takes place — not much seems to happen.
Hitchcock attempts to employ a kind of narrative device wherein Alfred Hitchcock speaks to the audience and interacts with Ed Gein the murderer, even only in his mind, which comes across amusing but uneven. And the film seems to expect that you’ve done your homework and read up on Hitch, and indeed, perhaps the film would improve if one read the book upon which it is based, but director Sacha Gervasi would seem to make a better screenwriter than director. Perhaps the film’s greatest contribution to the world is that it introduces us to his greatest collaborator. Though I’ve seen a number of Hitchcock’s films, I was unaware of his wife Alma Reville’s heavy hand in creating the masterpieces we know and love today, assisting in every area of creation from editing his scripts to assistant directing and much more.
TV shows such as Mad Men have ruined the era for us, training us to notice and subsume details, and one of Hitchcock’s greatest failures is how despicably cheap everything looks. Sets are dull and lifeless, clothes hang limp and pallid against the skin, their bouquet of lackluster colors chosen from a drab assortment of discarded suburban paint chips. From the sets of Psycho to the interiors of the Hitchcock home, everything is tame, predictable looking, offering up nothing unique or interesting.
Anthony Hopkins, while a wonderful actor, simply looks drowned in make-up and bears little resemblance to the rotund master of horror. There’s no noteworthy performances aside from Helen Mirren as Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville, Danny Huston as her literary friend and would be lover, and as Hitch’s agent Lew Wasserman, Michael Stuhlbarg — with whom I would very much like to share a prohibition-era cocktail and discuss books. (Did you like “Shantaram”? How about “2666,” no? Of course not, I found the bit about all the murders quite grisly too. Oh yes, I mean, I understand the need for it and it’s very prototypical Bolano but — yes, my eyes are sort of a blue-grey, how funny you should notice, Michael!) Scarlett Johansson continues to defy all the logic in the world and react glassy-eyed to any good will I attempt to extend her. Yes, she is beautiful, and yes, I have enjoyed performances of hers, notably Ghost World. However, the woman simply cannot act in films such as this one, where she’s attempting to portray a living legend. She comes off like Johannson in a bad wig.
The best actors are utterly selfless, able to access an inner truth and generously give of it to others, showing us things that we cannot deny, whether it’s the depth of sorrow that Meryl Streep tends to command at the drop of a hat or the conjuring act that transforms Daniel Day Lewis entirely into another person. There’s such a wealth of truth presented to us as an audience that we simply can’t reject it. They are who they say they are, in these new roles, entirely. Johansen as Janet Leigh, and to a lesser extent, Jessica Biel as Vera Miles in this film, are coy, disguised, hinting at a private life we simply cannot access, we can never partake in. There’s a kind of shield always up, and girlish nuisance that screams “This is the bit where I am playacting, isn’t this fun?” I am reminded of the scene in Lost Highway where Patricia Arquette and Balthazar Getty are deep in the desert and she plaintively asks “Don’t you want me?” and he says he does, and they make love by the light of the car headlights and just as he’s losing himself in the moment, completely taken in, she turns cruel and says “You’ll never have me.”
Don’t be dismayed, there’s a few delightful moments in this otherwise stillborn film. For all of you Helen Mirren swimsuit fanatics, we are treated to a somewhat lengthy scene of her swimming, tracking alongside her underwater. (Somewhere in Hollywood, Helen Mirren’s agent counts his pile of money and rechecks all her contracts to ensure that there’s at least one full body bathing suit sequence in every upcoming film.) Fans of Hitchcock may delight in the numerous insidery moments and jokes, and there’s a good deal of joy to be found in Mirren’s interactions and relationship with Hopkins, but overall this behemoth can’t quite overcome the sky high expectations and take on a life of its own.