Wednesday, December 12, 2012

HITCHCOCK Is a Fun Tribute to a Film Icon


- Its seems as though many critics are jumping aboard the "hate-on-Hitchcock" bandwagon, and I'm not sure why. While this true-life tale of the making of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" has its flaws, it also features an incredible cast, highlighted by two fantastic performances from Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, and Helen Mirren as the iconic director's wife and creative partner, Alma. I greatly enjoyed the tone of the film - framed like a modern-day episode of Alfred Hitchcock presents. Quirky, funny, and surprisingly touching, HITCHCOCK does drag and meander at times - but at the end of the day, it won me over with its telling of an important chapter in the master director's life.

HITCHCOCK is set in 1959. At that point, Hitchcock was a living legend. He had just released North By Northwest to great acclaim, and was unquestionably the "Master of Suspense." And yet, it was becoming harder for him to take creative risks, and he was perceived as some less as a still-vibrant creative force, and more as a cartoon character. After all, he was the grimly funny host of the TV program Alfred Hitchcock Presents (back when TV was seen as a much lesser medium than film), and he was no longer the fresh young ingenue - he was now sixty years old. Hitchcock wanted to surprise audiences and challenge himself, so he took on an adaptation of the book Psycho as his next project. Now, especially for the time, Psycho was pretty hardcore. The nature of the material scared off the studios and ruffled the feathers of the censors. But Hitchcock remained adamant that Psycho would be his next film - he put up his own money to finance it, determined to prove the naysayers wrong. The film also focuses on the role that Hitch's wife Alma played on Psycho and in her husband's career in general. Alma was Hitch's secret weapon - a creative heavyweight and a talented editor, Alma was a key part of many of the director's biggest films. And she stuck with him, even though doing so undermined her own career. The film explores the strain that the collaboration put on Hitch and Alma's relationship. Hitch fixated on the shapely young starlets in his films. Alma strikes up a flirtatious friendship with writer Whitfield Cook. And so the question becomes: can Hitchcock save Psycho, his career, his reputation, and his marriage?

Anthony Hopkins is really good as Hitchcock, in my opinion. Okay, so he doesn't exactly resemble the director, even with prosthetics that perfectly mimic Hitch's iconic silhouette. But he does seem to capture the right spirit. Hitchcock was a really unique, pretty weird guy - and so in turn Hopkins' performance is very unique and a bit weird. But I think it fits. Some may say Hopkins doesn't go deep enough. Some may say he looks silly with an added neck bulge and protruding gut. But I think Hopkins' performance - a bit cartoonish, but plenty captivating - fits the tone of the film. Equally great is Helen Mirren. She makes us believe in her relationship with Hitch. It's a weird one, especially by modern standards - seemingly sexless and passionless. But Mirren makes us believe in the couple as a sweet, grandparently duo of geniuses who thrive in each other's company. But she also displays her frustration with her husband with fiery scorn and pent-up sizzle. What I love about both performances is the way in which they capture the joyfulness of creative inspiration and accomplishment. While their personal lives are a strange brew of simmering resentments and hang-ups, all is overcome by the power of shared creative spark. To quote Alanis Morisette, it's intellectual intercourse.

There is also a great lineup of supporting actors. Michael Stuhlbarg (apparently in everything now) as Hitch's loyal agent, Kurtwood Smith as the antagonistically prudish MPAA censor, and Danny Huston as Whit - the smarmy would-be suitor to Alma. Toni Colette is a lot of fun as Hitch's put-upon assistant, as is James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins, the skittish actor who portrayed Norman Bates. The movie also features a great turn from Scarlett Johansson as the remarkably well-adjusted leading lady Janet Leigh. ScarJo mixes movie-star charisma with down-home sensibility to make Leigh come off as the sanest person in the movie - very much game for all of Hitchcock's intensity and personality quirks, but not afraid to talk straight with him. Jessica Biel is also pretty good as second banana Vera Miles - Hitch's would-be leading lady who feuded with the director over his controlling nature. Overall, it's an amazing cast.

Now, where HITCHCOCK fumbles is in its use of flashes to serial killer Ed Gein, the real-life basis for Norman Bates. The movie awkwardly uses Gein as a sort of muse / nightmare for Hitch, with Hitch having visions of Gein that both terrify him and motivate him to press onward with his movie. These imaginary sequences fall a bit flat though. A lot of this is because most of the film doesn't really explore the nature of the director's fascination with the morbid and the macabre. Most of the movie isn't really about that - so these sequences feel out of place and jarring. They pose a lot of questions about Hitch's psyche that seem largely tangential to the rest of the film.

The other stumbling block here is just the rather disproportionate time spent on creating a melodramatic rift between Hitch and Alma, as opposed to showing us the really fun stuff - the making of Psycho. Don't get me wrong - I really like the relationship between the couple, and the fireworks and chemistry between Hopkins and Mirren are fantastic. But there are moments where the storyline might have worked better as a running theme more in the background of the movie - where a subtler approach might have worked better. The fact that every petty squabble between Hitch and Alma is given such melodramatic weight at times gives the movie too sitcomish of a tone. Meanwhile, the bits that reveal how Hitchcock envisioned the famous shower scene, how he cast Norman Bates, how he at first protested the iconic soundtrack but then embraced it - are all really cool and interesting, and leave you wanting more of the behind-the-scenes stuff.

Still, there are moments of sublime fun where it all works really well. I really like Sacha Gervasi. I loved his first film, the rock-doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil, and he shows signs here of potential greatness in the world of scripted features. In fact, the movie's whole third act really recovers from a mid-movie slump and delivers the goods - I was riveted as we finally see Psycho come together, as Hitch's innovative marketing ideas go into effect to make the movie's premiere an event, and as Hitch proudly watches the first audience view the film - conducting their symphony of screams from outside the theater doors.

HITCHCOCK's self-aware, playful tone may turn off some, but I found it keeping with the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock. The man is a larger-than-life icon whose presence still looms large, so I enjoyed the film as a tribute to he and Alma, and didn't mind that it didn't dive too deep into the mind of the master. This is a great showpiece for Hopkins and Mirren, and a fun treat for anyone who appreciates Hollywood history.

My Grade: B+

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