Over time, great individuals can attain such a level of public adoration that any sort of criticism leveled against them is treated as sacrilege, whether they be Abe Lincoln, Mother Teresa, or a Beatle not named Ringo. Naturally, that inspires a certain kind of person to take dead aim at such sacred cows, not necessarily because he wants to tear these people down—although that can be part of the appeal—but because he wants to offer a counterbalance to the endless canonization. It's important to have heroes, but if we can't see them as flesh-and-blood individuals—as human and flawed as the rest of us—how can we fully appreciate their greatness?
I assume that's the animating philosophy behind Hitchcock, the new film that offers a whimsical look at the master director and the creation of one of his greatest films, Psycho. On its surface, this comedy-drama would seem to be a timely corrective to the universal adulation for Alfred Hitchcock, whose Vertigo was recently selected as the greatest film of all time in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound critics poll. Even one of the world's greatest filmmakers had his share of foibles and failings, dark little corners of personality from which emerged some wonderful art, though not without a human cost. That would make for a pretty good movie—too bad Hitchcock isn't it.
Fundamentally, Hitchcock's problem is the same one that afflicts other biopics that try to show a "different side" of a famous figure. The really wrongheaded ones—like Wired (about John Belushi) or the supremely dopey The Late Shift (about the battle over The Tonight Show waged between Jay Leno and David Letterman)—either take a preposterous pop-psychology approach to understanding the genius in question or they infantilize their subjects in a way that reduces them to their most obvious trademarks. (Jay sure has a big chin! Dave sure is cranky!) Unfortunately, Hitchcock manages to do both, lamely taking a stab at what made Hitch tick while treating the making of a major film in a goofy way. You'd think these people had never been on the set of a movie before.
As told by director Sacha Gervasi, Hitchcock (played by Anthony Hopkins) is at the height of his powers having just released North by Northwest, but now that he's pushing 60, there are whispers that maybe his best years are behind him. (In a sign of the movie's lack of imagination, this information is conveyed by having a reporter basically ask Hitchcock, "Hey, you're really great, but are you worried that you're getting old?" Rather than telling the kid to shut the hell up and stop talking in on-the-nose exposition, Hitchcock seems deeply wounded by the question.) So with the relucatant encouragement of his wife Alma (Helen Mirren), he decides to risk his financial future to make Psycho, a horror movie that nobody around him thinks is a good idea. But, you see, Hitchcock has to make this film; we know this because he has constant visions of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the Wisconsin serial killer whose antics were fictionalized in the book Psycho that Hitch adapted into his film.
The conversations between Gein and Hitch are meant to suggest an obsessive darkness within the director that fueled his passion to make Psycho. There are many ways to externalize people's inner desires, but Hitchcock takes an altogether silly approach, flattening and smoothing the complexities of an artist's drive until all there is left to say is, "Wow, dude was weird." But this tends to be how the film views every aspect of Hitchcock's makeup. Perhaps you've heard that he was obsessed with his blonde leading ladies? Well, here's a scene of him looking obsessively at a random blonde woman. Perhaps you're aware that Hitchcock came across in interviews as a droll, deadpan figure? Well, the Hitchcock of Hitchcock is a droll and deadpan figure. (Hopkins's performance has its moments, but ultimately it's a collection of a few repeated quirks in place of an actual, rounded personality.) Rather than stripping his character bare so that we might see him with fresh eyes, Gervasi more or less posits that you don't need to know much about Hitchcock—it's all there on the surface.
Everybody else in the movie is treated the same way. Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) looks and sounds like Janet Leigh, and that's about it. James D'Arcy nails Anthony Perkins's quiet, squirmy unease—according to this movie, he basically played himself when he was Norman Bates—and so on and so forth. The only character who's allowed multi-dimensions is Alma, whom the movie argues was instrumental in helping Hitchcock realize his artistic aspirations. It's a nice notion and a gentle riposte in more ways than one to Hollywood's often extreme Great Man view of itself, but you're not going to learn much from Hitchcock about how Alma helped him. She was just, you know, around, and she was good at helping recut Psycho because, well, a montage tells us that.
That laziness is Hitchcock's undoing. For a movie that's supposed to be about Hitch's obsession with making a film, this is a remarkably slack, incurious story. It's a movie about great moviemaking that doesn't seem at all interested in how great movies get made.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.