Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Big Review: "Hitchcock"

The peerless Matt Zoller Seitz asked on Twitter if there was any reason why he should watch this. I replied: "You get to see Jessica Biel in a bra." 

This review appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. Also, kids, if you want to read the review online, please head to But be sure to come back here, you hear? 

Let’s start with the obvious:  In Hitchcock, Anthony Hopkins looks nothing like the great director. Crammed into a fat-suit, his handsome features barely distorted by buttery jowls, he resembles Jeffrey Tambor—if the Arrested Development actor swallowed a large beach ball and had his legs amputated. The image created is a constant distraction that places Hopkins, a wonderful actor, in a hopeless situation.

Good news for Hopkins, if you can call it that: he’s not the lone faulty party. Sacha Gervasi’s biopic is a lumbering, forgettable collection of half-thoughts. Aside from Hopkins’s stupendous non-transformation, the film’s other memorable aspect is its ironic refusal to create a stir.

Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) does one thing right, focusing on a distinct period of time. It’s 1959 and Hitchcock, 60 years old and his legacy secure, is high on the success of North by Northwest. The feeling is over in minutes. “Shouldn’t you quit while you’re ahead?” a reporter asks after the premiere. In an unfortunate harbinger of the movie’s style, thunder crashes in the distance.

Hitchcock is determined to find something fresh. He passes on The Diary of Anne Frank and Casino Royale. Neither is a “nasty, little piece of work.” Psycho, a new book about mother-loving serial killer Ed Gein, fits the bill nicely. A skittish Paramount won’t make it, so Hitchcock finances the movie—a whopping $800,000—himself. Why go through the trouble? “I want to feel that kind of freedom again,” he tells his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), who has been his creative lifeblood from the beginning.

Alma is the strong woman behind the famed shapely silhouette—killing Marion Crane in Psycho’s first 30 minutes is her suggestion—but she’s tired of getting second billing. She’s tired of her husband’s obsession with beautiful, young blondes. She’s tired of being at his beck and call. She’s tired that she can’t carve her own niche other than being the faithful, supportive Mrs. Hitchcock. It’s been going on too long, so you can’t blame Alma when her dapper married friend (Danny Huston) gets increasingly chummy during their writing collaboration.

The conflict behind Alma and Alfred’s union would make for a compelling film. It’s too bad Hopkins looks like a human Grimace. But Gervasi wages a constant battle with no clear winner: recalling the last golden age of Hollywood movies vs. reveling in its dark undercurrent. John McLaughlin’s script focuses more on revealing facts about the production, which keeps the movie locked at a strolling pace. Gervasi’s stabs at darkness are either unintentionally comical (Hitchcock taking out his anger on a pool skimmer) or, reminiscent of that aforementioned lightning bolt, condescending and overdone. Hitchcock periodically talks to Gein (Michael Wincott) and envisions all his enemies as he shows Anthony Perkins (a perfectly cast James D’Arcy) how to stab Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). There’s a politeness to those scenes, which would have benefitted from utilizing Hopkins’ famed intensity. It’s too bad he resembles the Michelin Man in a suit.

Missed opportunities accumulate. Two wonderful actresses are present. One is used sparingly (Toni Collette) and the other (Johansson) serves as a subterfuge for Hitchcock’s blonde ambitions. That’s what you hire Jessica Biel, cast here as Vera Miles, for. The feisty, independent Alma gets defined with a stock “you need me” speech and by replacing her ailing husband on set, a scene so hokey that it should have been accompanied by “I Am Woman.” (I won’t even go into the ending.) Hitchcock could have been a Hollywood satire veiled in Eisenhower-era stodginess, a merciless portrayal of a tortured genius and his unsatisfied wife. Instead, it just stands there— one foot in the sunshine, the other in the darkness—wasting our time. [PG-13] 

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