Alfred Hitchcock was one of the world’s liveliest filmmakers, and now he gets turned into one of the season’s most boring films. That’s a sick joke; ironic enough that even he may have found it amusing. But nothing else about Hitchcock, director Sacha Gervasi’s misguided comedic “tribute” to the Master of Suspense, would qualify as amusement. No, this is a revisionist mess that reframes the making of Psycho, Hitchcock’s masterpiece, into proof of his undying reliance on wife and collaborator Alma (portrayed here as a lifeless bore by Helen Mirren.) As for the auteur himself, Anthony Hopkins wears a fat suit and laughable prosthetics; portraying him as a fumbling would-be cuckold who used cinema as a means to leer at large breasted actresses. What a fitting way to pay tribute to a visionary.
I wouldn’t be so opposed to the parodist characterizations if the movie weren’t also totally incompetent. Gervasi depicts Psycho as a product of Hitchcock having hallucinated conversations with serial killer Ed Gein, a laughably baseless suggestion (perhaps he felt The Iron Lady proved audiences love watching historical figures talk to ghosts.) He also pretends Alfred and Alma’s daughter Patricia, who appeared in Psycho, didn’t exist. He also fails to provide any insight into Hitch’s process and aesthetic — and thanks to a legal hiccup, he can’t show any footage of the finished Psycho either. Perhaps worst of all, not for a second does Gervasi’s lifeless direction — devoid of emotion, suspense, and even camera movement — bring to mind the work of the artist who filmed Vertigo (recently named by a critics’ poll as the greatest film ever made.) At times Hitchcock seems designed to annoy the fans of the title character.
And yet, paradoxically, its reason for existence still seems to be fan service, and nothing more. This portrayal of Hitchcock — all dumb jokes, gallows humor, and double entendres — is derived entirely from his carefully constructed public persona. If I had to guess, in lieu of any actual research, Gervasi just watched the trailer for the original Psycho along with a couple episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And so in place of humor, his Hitchcock offers an endless barrage of inside jokes. “I do hope something comes along soon,” the director says in regards to his next project, just as a menacing bird lands on his shoulder. That’s not even funny! It’s just an unsubtle nod to another movie (The Birds.) Hitchcock goes on like that for 98 interminable minutes.
And don’t even get me started on the disrespectful treatment of Anthony Perkins, the great actor who played Norman Bates (the titular psycho.) Here, his reported homosexuality — he had a wife and children, but many reports stated he had his fair share of affairs — is turned into a feature length gag. James D’arcy’s performance renders him a shy closet-case, deathly afraid of the female form and as such a perfect fit for Hitchcock’s maternal horror film. I suppose it’s only obliquely homophobic, but it’s completely cheap. During his audition, Perkins namedrops Rope and Strangers on a Train, Hitch’s two works with overt homosexual overtones, as his favorite films. Get it? It’s hilarious because he’s gay.
That’s the level of sophistication the “comedy” here grasps at. This is wink-nudge cinema; every joke predicated not by actual humor or intelligence, but rather by your knowledge of whatever the script is referencing. The Birds, Perkin’s homosexuality, even a knock on cult western director Anthony Mann and his film Winchester ’73 — everything in the script is designed as a payoff to some useless Hollywood factoid, rather than as a punch-line to an actual joke. Sometimes, like when Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) posits that the exceedingly well-regarded Orson Welles was an actor’s nightmare, it’s not even referencing anything factual. It’s just making things up for the sake of providing the vapid characters with some dialogue.
It takes one of history’s great filmmakers — nay, one of its great artists — and turns him into a joke. Hitchcock isn’t even portrayed as an artist. The character’s arc has to do not with Psycho‘s quality, or its formal audaciousness, but rather with its box office results. That’s perhaps the worst of the films myriad insults toward the history it pretends to depict. It takes an iconoclast, a trailblazer; and with a little armchair psychology Gervasi turns him into a craftsman interested in nothing more than financial success.
Which is ironic, because not a moment of Hitchcock contains even a modicum of the artistry apparent in each of the Master’s actual films. They were tense, decidedly lowbrow pleasures. This is middlebrow awards bait; repurposing a historical icon for cheap melodrama much like The King’s Speech, My Week with Marilyn, The Iron Lady, and many others did before it. Hitchcock films are intoxicating; Hitchcock the film is infuriating. Which would you rather spend a night watching?