There's an inherent danger in pulling back the curtain to reveal the puppeteers behind iconic art. It's even trickier when the man is Alfred Hitchcock, whose reputation as a dry-witted prankster perfectly fit his skill at appealing to audiences' fledgling fascination with grotesquerie and unease. With Hitchcock, rookie director Sacha Gervasi attempts to separate the public persona from the private life of Hitch and wife Alma Reville. Guess what: Old married couples are kind of boring…and so are cookie-cutter biopics.
Still, there's some fun in Hitchcock, in which Anthony Hopkins cakes on the jowls to play Hitch as he tries to get his hugely controversial Psycho off the ground. Hitch latches onto the novel, which tells the tale of mama's boy Ed Gein, despite the studio's refusal to finance it and against the judgment of Alma (Helen Mirren), who nonetheless agrees to put the couple's home up as collateral to independently finance the most influential horror film ever made.
The film is best when it focuses on Hitch on set, terrorizing Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) while struggling to make others see the potential. But it skids to a halt when it turns to Hitch and Alma, who Hitch suspects is having an affair with a former writer. Sequences of the couple bickering are grindingly mundane, and Gervasi attempts to gussy them up by intercutting misconceived dream sequences of Hitch chatting with killer Gein. Even such macabre fantasies can't make a couple arguing about domestic budgets interesting.
Hopkins and Mirren are excellent in their roles, with Mirren offering her trademark steely sass and Hopkins adding vulnerability to the legend, but the former Hannibal Lecter is given too little to work with, and instead of layering his showcase with nuance, he barely rises above caricature. This year's similarly underwhelming The Girl from HBO had Toby Jones playing Hitch as a cartoonishly malicious pervert. Here, the Master of Suspense is a big teddy bear who wants only to make people happy by scaring the holy hell out of them. The problem is, even in this fairly fictionalized account of Hitch, pulling the curtain back reveals a boring domestic existence separate from the legendary entertainer who changed cinema. To borrow Hitch's favorite criticism: "It's stillborn."
Critic's Grade: C
SEE IT: Hitchcock is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.