Review: 'Hitchcock' Is All Whimsy and No Weight

Quentin Tarantino has said that he won’t be making movies beyond age 60. But if Alfred Hitchcock had done the same, we wouldn’t have “Psycho,” which would be a very bad thing. And we wouldn’t have Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock,” either – though that wouldn’t be such a loss.

“Hitchcock” tells the story – or at least a pancake-laden version of it -- of how one of the most influential directors of all time came to make one of the most revered and entertaining horror films of all time. Anthony Hopkins, fitted with a pigeon-chest paunch, plays Hitchcock at age 60, and as the movie opens, he’s just released one of his biggest hits, “North by Northwest.” A reporter asks him why, at his age, he doesn’t just quit while he’s ahead, and the question clearly vexes him. He begins a zealous but at first fruitless search for his next project, something that’ll really wow ’em.

He finds his inspiration, eventually, in Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho,” and his peppery but beleaguered wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), at first doesn’t approve – the material and subject matter seem crass to her. Eventually, though, in this version of the tale, “Psycho” becomes something of a joint effort between two perfectly matched but chaste lovebirds. The real-life Alma – the former Alma Reville – was an accomplished screenwriter and editor herself, and she was her husband’s trusted adviser. At one point in “Hitchcock,” Alma fills in for her husband during filming as he recovers from a brief illness, and when it comes time to cut the film, she takes charge in the editing room, too. All the while, Hopkins’ Hitchcock -- should we call him Hop-Hitch? -- looks on with unvarnished adoration masquerading as grudging approval.

Some of what Gervasi puts into "Hitchcock" is true (Alma was her husband’s trusted adviser and collaborator), and some of it certainly feels true (at one point Hitchcock, lounging in his bath, lasciviously watches his wife dress for a luncheon date through a half-open door). Hitchcock did finance “Psycho” himself after Paramount executives rejected his initial pitch. And he was obsessed with his parade of blonde actresses – Gervasi shows him spreading their pictures on his desk and gazing at them with an almost furious longing.

But whether or not “Hitchcock” adheres strictly to every fact is beside the point. The problem is that “Hitchcock” – written by John J. McLaughlin, who used Stephen Rubello’s 1990 book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” as source material – is so simplistic that it barely has any weight at all. Gervasi (who previously directed the documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil”) dresses the picture up with an aggressive whimsicality. His Hitch is a portly, naughty cutie-pie who delights in showing off crime-scene photos to his assembled luncheon guests. What a cutup! Don’t you just want to hug him?

Hopkins meticulously impersonates his subject without really getting beneath the surface, and the dialogue he’s asked to deliver probably doesn’t help. As he’s trying to persuade Alma to risk their house, and possibly give up her beloved swimming pool, to get “Psycho” made, he implores, “We invented new ways to make pictures because we had to. I just want to feel that kind of freedom again.” Hitch just wants to feel the breeze blowing, once again, through his nonexistent hair. Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose – so why not go ahead and make a low-budget black-and-white film about a loner who likes to dress in his dead mother’s clothes?

The women in “Hitchcock” are the best reasons to see it: Mirren plays Alma not as a behind-the-scenes mouse but as a take-charge tigress, and she’s great fun to watch. Jessica Biel is Vera Miles, an actress who spurned and was thus punished by Hitchcock – she’s such a cool customer that she makes the movie around her feel even more forced and phony. And even though Scarlett Johansson doesn’t bear that much of a physical resemblance to “Psycho” star Janet Leigh, spiritually, at least, she’s Leigh’s twin. She makes her entrance from behind, sashaying into a restaurant to meet the director and his wife for the first time -- the camera fixates on her peach-shaped derriere, draped in a swag of satin that swishes like a pony’s tail. Johansson plays Leigh as a no-nonsense vixen who’ll have none of Hitchcock’s manipulative baloney. She’s got her wits around her in a way the film doesn’t. Everything around her may as well be a storyboard.

Grade: C-