The man who made "Psycho" was no lightweight, though he kind of comes off that way in "Hitchcock."
Starring Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as his wife and collaborator, Alma, "Hitchcock" puts a featherlight yet entertaining touch on the behind-the-scenes struggle to make the mother of all slasher films.
Hitchcock's very dark side gets superficial treatment as the film offers the cinematic equivalent of psychobabble to explore the director's notorious gluttony, sexual repression and idolization of his leading ladies.
Though shallow, "Hitchcock" has a playful quality that often makes it good fun, its spirit of whimsy a wink that the filmmakers know they're riffing on Hitchcock's merrily macabre persona and not examining the man with any great depth or insight.
"Hitchcock" is a promising move into dramatic filmmaking for director Sacha Gervasi after his 2009 documentary "Anvil: The Story of Anvil," a chronicle of heavy-metal wannabes who never quite made it. With screenwriter John J. McLaughlin adapting Stephen Rebello's book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho," Gervasi spins a nimble tale of a genteel yet volatile genius turning water into wine as Hitchcock transforms a tawdry story inspired by murderer Ed Gein into high art - and one of the scariest movies ever.
Fresh off a big success with 1959's "North by Northwest," Hopkins' Hitchcock lapses into the sort of funk that repeated itself throughout his career as he floundered about in search of his next film. He defies the expectations of Paramount executives and his own colleagues, Alma included, when he settles on Robert Bloch's novel "Psycho," the Gein-influenced story of Norman Bates, a soft-spoken mama's boy whose creepy double life leads to multiple murders.
Alma thinks it's a cheap story that's beneath her husband. Hitchcock thinks the spare tale - its savage violence told with subtle suggestiveness to mollify Hollywood's puritanical censors - can leave fans screaming in their seats.
"Hitchcock" strains to play up marital strife between the two as Alma feels tempted by a writing colleague (Danny Huston), while Alfred's frustrated fancies continue over his long string of Hitchcock blondes - in this case, "Psycho" co-stars Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) - the latter standing with Grace Kelly among his greatest fixations.
The film also strays into Freudian fantasies as the specter of Gein himself (Michael Wincott) pops up to help Hitchcock work through his issues. These moments are clunky devices that offer no understanding of Hitchcock and his demons; at best, they're good for a chuckle here and there.
And while the filmmaker-at-work moments are similarly frivolous, it's wicked fun watching Hopkins' Hitchcock as cruel taskmaster, using whatever figurative cattle prods he can find to trick or cajole what he wants out of his actors.
Hopkins is padded to match Hitchcock's portly silhouette, yet the jowly prosthetics applied to his face are a bit distracting and unrealistic. They don't make Hopkins look much more like Hitchcock; they just make him look like Anthony Hopkins with prosthetics on his face.
Still, the spirit of Hitchcock comes through in Hopkins' sly performance, and he captures the measured cadence of the filmmaker's speech even though he doesn't sound much like Hitchcock, either.
Mirren has the easier task in inhabiting Alma, bringing fierce intelligence to Hitchcock's wife without the handicap of playing someone whose image, voice and mannerisms the audience knows so well.
The supporting players are there just for the joy of it, though Johansson turns out to be surprisingly good casting as Leigh, physically resembling the actress whose "Psycho" character gets snuffed in the famous shower scene and also doing a nice impersonation of Leigh's speaking style and demeanor. Likewise, James D'Arcy is an eerie dead ringer as jittery Anthony Perkins, who played the killer Norman.
Behind horn-rimmed glasses and a stiff hairdo, Toni Collette is a delight as Hitchcock's assistant, putting great heart and humor into her handful of scenes.
If "Hitchcock" ultimately feels inconsequential, it always aims to please, and for the most part, it does. As Alma says at one point, even "Psycho," after all, was just a movie.
"Hitchcock," a Fox Searchlight release, is rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material. Running time: 98 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.