Alfred Hitchcock was fond of casting icy blonds as his films' heroines and subjecting them to dreadful perils. "Blonds make the best victims," he used to say. But in the backstage comedy-drama Hitchcock, the most troubled relationship is between the legendary director (Anthony Hopkins) and his dark-haired wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren).
Peeking at the private man behind Hitchcock's carefully cultivated public image seems fair, given his voyeuristic tendencies. Shifting perspective from his authoritarian faßade to the needy, repressed man within is one of the few neat twists in this affectionate, forgettable misfire. They could have subtitled it Dial M for Muddle.
Granted, it's difficult to make a film about a dazzling entertainer without courting comparison. Director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin stake no claim to the mordant wit and nail-biting story lines of Hitchcock's classics. This is two films, shuttling between Hitch's strained domestic life and his battles with studio execs and defenders of morality during the 1959 filming of Psycho. Kurtwood Smith is a hoot as a fuddy-duddy censor, but since we know Hitch will have the last laugh, there's little tension on that count.
The filmmakers take at face value the ghoulish-uncle image he affected for publicity purposes, never probing the dark emotional issues motivating a merchant of menace. The Birds star Tippi Hedren has long accused the director of sexually harassing her, calling him "evil and deviant," while another Hitchcock blond, Vertigo's Kim Novak, defends him saying, "I did not find him to be weird at all."
Hitchcock ignores that tantalizing controversy, lowering the stakes hugely. The film aims to generate suspense from the reticent Englishman's reluctance to tell his wife he loves her, while wolfish writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) circles Alma for purposes combining business and pleasure. There are walk-ons from Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy, fey), Vera Miles (Jessica Biel, spunky) and Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson, double spunky). Only taxidermy fan Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) connects, as a lively figment of Hitch's imagination.
Hopkins has a wonderful moment when he stands in the theatre lobby for the first public screening of Psycho, acting out the shower-scene assault with waving arms in time to the screams rocking the theatre. But his makeup recalls Mussolini, and his acting is superficial impersonation.
The scenes of life with Alfred and Alma are tepid soap opera. An important but overlooked creative contributor to Hitch's films, Alma is troubled with doubts about the eccentric genius across the breakfast table. Mirren is pleasant as Alma, but the film is unable to convey why she felt such loyalty to a charming but cold-blooded control freak. That's Hitchcock's greatest mystery, sadly unsolved.
-- Minneapolis Star Tribune
Excerpts of select reviews of Hitchcock:
If Hitchcock ultimately feels inconsequential, it always aims to please, and for the most part, it does.
-- David Germain, The Associated Press
An overly literal idea of the brilliant director, but an entertaining visit to the set of a horror classic.
-- Rafer Guzman, Newsday
I genuinely can't figure out why Hitchcock was made or who its target audience might be, except that it gratifies our apparently universal appetite to believe that creative geniuses are hateful freaks.
-- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.com
Hitchcock is, well, fun. More fun than good, really.
-- Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic
An entertaining, economical and thoroughly enjoyable glimpse into a familiar artist's creative process.
-- Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
It's fluff. But while its dim fantasies about Hitchcock and the association of genius with psychosis can be written off as silly, they also smack of spiteful jealousy.
--Manohla Dargis, New York Times