‘Hitchcock’: A lightweight look at a prolific director

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 Alma, his wife and collaborator, “Hitchcock” puts a featherlight yet entertaining touch on the behind-the-scenes struggle to make the mother of all slasher films.

Hitchcock’s 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.

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 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 settles on Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho,” the story of Norman Bates, a soft-spoken mama’s boy whose creepy double life leads to multiple murders.

“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).

Hopkins is padded to match Hitchcock’s portly silhouette, yet the jowly prosthetics applied to his face are a bit distracting and unrealistic.

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.

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.

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 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”

2 and a half stars

A light-hearted, almost tongue-in-cheek look at the portly director during the filming of one of the scariest movies ever, “Psycho.” A padded Anthony Hopkins doesn’t look or sound like Hitchcock, but pulls off the portrayal in spirit. With Helen Mirren as his wife, Alma, and Scarlett Johanssen as Janet Leigh, star of the famous shower scene.

Rated: PG-13 for violence, sex and thematic materials.

Showing: Limited release nationwide; opens locally Nov. 30.

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