I'm going to keep this review short, in direct proportion to the importance of the work being considered. There is probably an interesting movie to be made about the making of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and there is no doubt a far more interesting story to be told about the great director's relationship with his wife, collaborator, and muse Alma Reville. How I dearly wish Sacha Gervasi's new film Hitchcock, which tries to be both of these things, was either. Shallow, slight, and far less insightful than your average DVD extra, Hitchcock makes a dull sit-com out of potentially great material, and reduces fascinating characters to farcical caricatures.
Hitchcock is about the production of 1960's Psycho, which became the director's biggest hit but began life as a controversial and financially risky picture. As the film opens, Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins, playing a convincingly more corpulent Anthony Hopkins), and his wife and uncredited partner Alma (Helen Mirren, playing a very convincing Helen Mirren), are looking for their next project to follow up the success of 1959's North by Northwest. When Hitch comes across Robert Bloch's novel Pyscho, a fictionalized retelling of the real-life murders of Wisconsinite Ed Gein, Alma dismisses it as "low-budget, horror movie claptrap." But Hitchcock is excited and invigorated by the challenge, wondering, "What if someone really good made a horror picture?"
The screenplay for Hitchcock is allegedly based on Stephen Rebello's 1999 book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. I haven't read Rebello's book yet, but I can't help but wonder if that is something I and Hitchcock screenwriter John J. McLaughlin have in common: reviews of the book suggest that it is a fascinating, meticulous, well-researched chronicle of the making of Psycho, but none of these adjectives apply to Hitchcock. McLaughlin and Gervasi seem to know nothing, and say nothing, about how Hitchcock worked, what made Psycho special, or even what was interesting about the production itself. Despite what amount to extended cameos from Jessica Biel (as Vera Miles), Scarlett Johansson (as Janet Leigh), and James D'Arcy (an eerily accurate Anthony Perkins), we barely see any of the filming of Psycho, nor do we see a single frame of the finished picture. "No one can cut a picture better than you," Alma tells her husband, and that comment is about the extent of the insight we get into what made Hitchcock a genius.
Instead, Hitchcock chooses to focus its limp energy on a flimsy (and apparently wholly invented) sub-plot in which Alma flirts with infidelity, tempted by minor Hollywood writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). The decision to focus on Hitch and Alma's marriage could have been a good one—Alma is surely a woman who deserves to have her story told—but it is baffling that Gervasi chooses to do so through a tepid, fictionalized romantic comedy, while paying only passing and shallow attention to real, well-documented issues like Hitchcock's famous obsession with his leading ladies. Never once do we feel like we are looking at a real marriage, let alone one as complicated, mutually respectful, and remarkably productive as history tells us this one was. (HBO's recent movie The Girl—which starred Toby Jones as Hitch and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren—had its flaws, but in its willingness to actually explore the darker aspects of Hitchcock's life and character it is the immeasurably more sophisticated and interesting treatment.)
At best, Hitchcock manages to squeeze a few gentle laughs out of its material, but that's not enough to recommend it; in fact, it's a problem. From 1955 to 1965, Hitchcock hosted Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a TV anthology series that aired on CBS and NBC. Hitchcock's films were already legendary by this time, but it is the TV show that made him a star, making his sly wit, unique voice, and famous silhouette instantly recognizable to millions of Americans. It also, however—as he complains in Hitchcock—trivialized him, making him seem more like a harmless, jocular TV personality and less like the giant of cinema that he unquestionably was. This is the Alfred Hitchcock Gervasi and McLaughlin show us, for it is the only one they seem to know: a gentle figure of fun, droll and avuncular, good for a laugh. But the real Hitchcock was a giant, masterful and perhaps monstrous: he deserves better than he gets in Hitchcock. And, as the unsung woman behind the great man, Alma Reville deserves much better.
There is, finally, simply no point to Hitchcock: it explains little about Hitch and Alma's marriage, it illuminates nothing about Hitchcock's work, and it stands on its own as neither entertainment nor art. It's harmless, I suppose, but harmless is the last thing any movie about the Master of Suspense should be. Ultimately, there is not a single moment in the tame, tepid Hitchcock that would not be better spent watching a single moment—any moment—of one of Hitchcock's films.