'Hitchcock' squanders potential

Hitchcock, a new film about the making of director Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic, Psycho, belongs to a subgenre of moviemaking that is seeing diminishing returns: The fictionalized, narrowly focused biopic.

One such film, Steven Spielberg’s likely Oscar contender, Lincoln, works beautifully. Another good example is Capote, a 2005 film about that rascally, brilliant writer and mid-20th century personality, Truman Capote. Both films feature uncanny portrayals of their title characters and productions that deftly reproduce the time in which the characters lived.

Lincoln concentrates upon President Abraham Lincoln’s successful quest to get the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the slavery-banning 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Capote details the writer’s investigative work for his non-fiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood.

Next to Lincoln and Capote, Hitchcock sputters and stalls. For one thing, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Daniel Day-Lewis disappear into their respective roles as Capote and Lincoln. But Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock is so obviously the actor beneath heavy prosthetic makeup and enlarged-for-his character girth.

The late ’50s, early ’60s look of the film, too, has a playful, faux touch about it, more suitable to a lower-level TV movie than a major Hollywood film.

John J. McLaughlin, screenwriter for the madly intense Black Swan, would seem a good choice to adapt Stephen Rebello’s 1990 book, Alfred Hitchcock and The Making of Psycho. But the resulting movie operates on a smug, shallow sort of Hitch against-the-world plateau. Or at least the Paramount Studios executives who are presented as bottom-line obsessed aren’t philistine enough to elevate Hitchcock and his tiny inner circle to artistic sainthood.

The movie paints the master of the suspense into a disheartened corner. Following the triumph of his 1959 hit, North By Northwest, Hitchcock allows a mere reporter, even a reporter in a gang of reporters, at a premiere, to put him on the defensive.

“You’re 66 years old,” the hack shouts. “Shouldn’t you just quit while you’re ahead?”

The entire movie swings from that one question. A question from a nobody, or at least a someone who’s much less consequential than a great movie director at the peak of his powers.

And the struggle Hitchcock wages to create his next film never has the sense of urgency it needs. Whatever challenges the real Hitchcock faced in making Psycho, what shows up on screen in Hitchcock is almost petty.

Hitchcock is largely concerned with showing the importance of the director’s wife and collaborator, Alma Reville. She served the famous director as film editor and screenwriter.

Helen Mirren, playing opposite Hopkins, does the movie’s best acting work as Reville. While an often listless Hopkins must project his performance from behind heavy makeup, Mirren forcefully takes command as the power behind the throne. She’s got a great speech, too, albeit to an audience of one, her character’s husband.

But Mirren’s outstanding work almost seems as if it’s in another movie. Ironically, the other actors’ performances are more in tune with the overall triviality of this underachieving little biopic.