There are so many ways for a "biopic" to go wrong: actors who mistake caricature for character, history that's been sanitized to make for a more simplistic story; filmmakers who admire their subjects too much to be truly frank and honest about their flaws, and on and on. The light and unexpectedly colorful new bio-pic known simply as Hitchcock suffers from a variety of the standard problems, and perhaps even a few egregious ones -- but there's also a handsome look, admirable tone, and a lot of amusing novelty to be found in Sacha Gervasi's affectionate story about the mad genius who made Psycho.
Those who are looking for a scandalous tell-all biopic of the man who gave us Rear Window, Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, and North By Northwest may find this rendition a bit over-scrubbed and, yes, sanitized -- but taken as a sly and affectionate look at a sad man and his desire to become something new and relevant, there's a lot here for a film buff to enjoy. Fictionalized, simplified, and intermittently way too earnest for its own good, Hitchcock still earns major points in departments other than historical veracity.The massive ensemble, for example, is a strong selling point in its own right. Not only is there the diverting novelty of watching a porcine Anthony Hopkins portray Alfred Hitchcock, but there always seems to be another stray nugget of amusement in every other scene. Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles? Yes, please. Michael Stuhlbarg as legendary agent Lew Wasserman and James D'Arcy as a sweet but twitchy Anthony Perkins? Both great. And the casting directors don't stop there. Perhaps it's just difficult to dislike a film that finds use for folks like Michael Wincott, Kurtwood Smith, Danny Huston, Toni Collette, and Richard Portnow, but given that Hitchcock is already a film made for movie geeks, the eclectic ensemble feels like an extra layer of icing.And Helen Mirren gets her very own paragraph break for reigning supreme over such a massive cast of characters. Whether you consider Hitchcock an admirable look at a wonderful filmmaker or a broad misfire that wastes valuable resources, there's little denying that Ms. Mirren's performance as Hitchcock's long-devoted, frequently suffering, and endlessly ingenious wife, Alma Reville, is an absolute delight. Even when the always-classy actress is saddled with some basic dialogue about being trapped as "the woman behind the man," Mirren infuses the lines with an irrepressible charm and quiet strength. In a movie boasting about 15 big-name actors, Ms. Mirren still manages to steal the whole damn show.
Ensemble aside, as well as some stellar contributions in the departments of costume and 1959 production design, Hitchcock is sort of a mixed bag. John McLaughlin's screenplay is at is cleverest and most appealing when it remains focused on the inception and production of the now-classic known as Psycho, and is considerably more maudlin and predictable when it casts its gaze upon Hitchcock's rather bland and generic private life. A third thread involving the specter of Ed Gein, the maniac who inspired Robert Bloch to write Psycho, is ham-fisted and in rather poor taste, although Michael Wincott as Ed Gein is rather an inspired bit of casting.Doubtlessly too scattershot to impress the true Hitchcock scholars of the world, Gervasi's odd duck of a biopic is half comedy, half romance, very little conflict, and a generous share of assets in numerous technical departments. Hopkins makes for a charming and compelling, if not entirely believable, Alfred Hitchcock, and he's flanked by enough support on both sides of the camera to make Hitchcock an appealing piece of fluff for movie buffs, and sometimes that's just good enough.