If by any chance you’ve recovered from seeing Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor in Lifetime’s Liz & Dick, fear not, because this week brings another incompetent, tawdry biopic set during the waning years of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Alas, Sacha Gervasi’s insultingly stupid Hitchcock is not nearly as much fun to hate-watch, in no small part because it seems to think it’s being clever.
Purporting to be based on Stephen Rebello’s 1990 book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, John J. McLaughlin’s screenplay displays little interest in the actual making of Psycho and has no patience whatsoever for what we in the benighted journalism industry like to call “facts.” Of course, movies play fast and loose with the truth all the time, and as an Oliver Stone fan, it would be awfully hypocritical of me to get my panties in a bunch over a little bit of fudging for entertainment’s sake. But what’s galling about Hitchcock is just how nonsensical and purposeless all the elisions and distortions turn out to be, constantly tossing aside credibility for a cheap elbow in the ribs.
For all intents and purposes immobilized under a ton of laughably unconvincing prosthetic makeup, Anthony Hopkins waddles through the movie carrying on in the full hambone persona Hitch cultivated as the host of his television show. (Hopkins only remembers to put on the accent about half the time; the other half, he just talks like Hannibal Lecter.) Out of ideas and, we’re told, all but finished in Hollywood—despite the fact that he’s coming off the smash success of North By Northwest and has a massively popular TV program—Hitchcock mopes around in search of a creative spark, waited on by his long-suffering wife and uncredited creative collaborator Alma, played by Helen Mirren, the only person in this picture escaping with any dignity intact.
Inspiration strikes upon perusal of Robert Bloch’s scandalous novel Psycho, which was based in part on the exploits of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein. But the major movie studios dare not touch such ghastly material, so our increasingly obsessed director finances the picture himself, while slowly succumbing to bizarre, violent daydreams in which Gein (Michael Wincott) acts as his co-conspirator and father confessor.
It’s a disastrous device, giving Alfred Hitchcock an imaginary friend. Even worse is the barn-door broad tone Gervasi adopts for all the cartoonish sight gags and labored in-jokes. The lion’s share of Hitchcock’s running time is frittered away on the filmmaker’s paranoid suspicion that Alma is sleeping with Danny Houston’s skeezy screenwriter. We’re supposed to believe that this dopey, entirely fictional rampaging jealousy is what spawned Psycho’s primal horror instead of, you know, stuff like artistry and craftsmanship.
Obviously Alfred Hitchcock had some (ahem) conflicted feelings with regard to women, and his best films plumb the depths of that psychological distress. He didn’t need an invisible pal to confide in; that’s what the movie camera was for. But Hitchcock can’t be bothered to address the work; it’s too busy being gossipy and dismissive. James D’Arcy does a killer Anthony Perkins; too bad the movie only sees him as a vehicle for lame gay jokes. Joseph Stefano’s contributions are shrunk to one scene, and adding insult to injury, he’s played by Ralph Macchio. Jessica Biel’s Vera Miles talks a lot about “Hitchcock blondes,” while Scarlett Johansson looks great as Janet Leigh, sadly stranded making inaccurate cracks at Orson Welles’ expense.
I’m told that legal restrictions prohibited any recreations of scenes from Hitchcock’s movies (and also account for the absence of his daughter Patricia, who simply doesn’t exist here, even though she has a role in Psycho.) So really, what’s the point in making a movie about an artist if you can’t represent any of the art?
Gervasi’s alternative is to wallow in fat jokes and wink-wink nudge-nudge references that anybody with even a passing knowledge of cinema history will find eye-rollingly obvious. The only consideration of the classic film being made is strictly a financial one: Will Psycho make enough money so that the Hitchcocks can afford to keep up their lavish lifestyle? There’s no appreciation or even explanation of the director’s groundbreaking techniques, just some fretting about the box office, which I suppose marks it as a movie for our times.
I’d rather be watching Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake.