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Hitchcock fails to grasp the true nature of its mercurial subject.



Hitchcock, a sort of fat-suit version of last year's softheaded nostalgia trip My Week With Marilyn, brushes by with just enough suavity that you don't notice right away how despicable it is.

Whatever credit can be claimed for this short-lasting sleight of hand goes not to Anthony Hopkins, whose vulcanized impression of the master of suspense feels fussy and shallow, but to Helen Mirren. She plays Alma Reville, Hitchcock's wife, as the latest in her recent line of bossy, sometimes royal, matriarchs, rearranging an increasingly familiar bouquet of thin-lipped scowls, prim clucks and conjugal resignation into something worth a look. She effectively conveys the frustrations of the Hitchcock-Reville glass ceiling — a constraint heavily and insultingly embellished here, to the benefit of neither cinema history nor the audience.

There's no disputing Reville's intimate influence over her husband's art, or that their collaboration favored his image, and a peek into the mechanics of that lifelong partnership might have been fascinating even with some dramatic license. But director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin instead opt for all license and no drama. At every turn, Hitchcock is drearily anti-feminist and numbingly trite. Every woman here — including Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, both coolly glamorous, and Toni Collette as a Hitchcock employee — exists somewhere on a mommy spectrum that runs from enabler to castrator, with Reville given limited access to stops in between.

And this version of Hitch needs mothering. Tantrum-prone, furtive, sexually arrested, he's a cartoon outline of a figure whose well-marbled eccentricities were, in real life, not as obvious as his movies suggest. There's so much boy here that there's not much room left for the man. He's a Hitchcock astute enough to see through caddish screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston, at his most vulpine) but unable to cope with Cook's flattery of Reville (the most egregiously manufactured of the movie's ham-fisted contrivances). He's a Hitchcock enraptured by a Leigh who knows enough to placate her director with a bag of candy corn.

Hopkins' easy homicidal glint makes casting sense, but the lazy fiction of this Hitchcock eludes the actor. A scene in which he empties the contents of an icebox into his artificial jowls is as grotesque as Gervasi intends, but Hopkins plays it and other feverish moments with a poorly tempered Lear impulse. However tragic the real Hitchcock's more self-destructive habits may have been, this movie's idea of them is no more refined than the crude re-enactments of an especially morbid Dateline NBC episode. Hopkins invests the part with too much shame and pathos for what turns out to be a two-dimensional marriage comedy.

And the blunt cosmetic truth of this marriage was that both of its participants were profoundly homely — a state that helped form the outsider's perspective vital to Hitchcock's movies. Despite untold makeup and appliances, though, and the studied dowdiness that Hopkins and Mirren bring to their roles, it's impossible to witness this Alfred and Alma as the lumpen, made-for-each-other figures that any version of their story demands. There's a condescension in both performances, an uncomfortable pity that undoes whatever pleasures might be had in a gauzy depiction of Hollywood in the moment before Camelot. (Jeff Cronenweth's photography is lustrous.)

The opening-credits sequence (which, with Danny Elfman's sticky-fingered score, pays homage to Hitchcock's TV show) says McLaughlin's screenplay is based on Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Other than limiting the story's chronology to that 1960 movie's difficult gestation, though, the connection between this and non-Wikipedia Hitchcock scholarship is tissue-thin. For instance: At the premiere of North by Northwest, amid popping flashbulbs, an off-screen voice asks Hitchcock why he doesn't just quit while he's ahead — a question that sends him into a funk.

The only way back to business turns out to be via Robert Bloch's fictionalization of the Ed Gein murders, which Hitchcock illustrates by casting Michael Wincott as the Wisconsin serial killer and putting him and Hopkins in short, ugly fantasy sequences together. The suggestion is that the director's success owes something to an innate understanding of his own dark impulses. But Hitchcock's gift was in his absolute grasp of the audience's dark impulses. The difference isn't subtle, but it proves too much for Gervasi.

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