Here's a subgenre I bet none of us expected: movies about Helen Mirren playing the wife of a famous artist, who treats her rather shabbily, that focus far more on her character and their difficult marriage than it does on his creation of the famous works that are, after all, the only reason we care about these people anyway. And yet here we have Hitchcock, with Mirren as long-suffering Alma Reville, wife of legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and if it's not exactly like The Last Station (Mirren as long-suffering Sofya Tolstoy) in the particulars, the taste it leaves in one's mouth is rather dismayingly similar: hey look, famous people are screwed up too, and boy that Mirren, whatta actress! Don't you just want to throw Oscars at her like jelly beans? All of it surrounded by a significantly less-than-enlightening depiction of the Great Man's process.

Alas, Mirren does not here refer to her husband as her "big cock" as she did in The Last Station, though it would be simultaneously more appropriate and dirtier.

Adapted by John J. McLaughlin from Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the film is about, well, look at the book it was adapted from. This is, indeed, a backstage story about the creation of the groundbreaking Psycho, with heavy emphasis on the director's infamous sexual hang-ups, and his nasty relationship to the blonde actresses in his career, and the toll this takes on his relationship with Alma, presented by the movie (as was, I understand, largely true in life), as the Γ©minence grise of Hitch's entire career, not exactly so responsible for his decisions as to be a secret co-director, but better able than any other collaborator in his entire career to give him advice and suggestions that cut to the very heart of whatever it is he was trying to accomplish with each new project.

The film's story is more than a little bit aggrandized - it is certainly not the case that Hitchcock and Reville faced a financial wipeout if Psycho failed, for example - but all in the spirit of good, sudsy, fun backstage entertainment, and parts of the movie are terrifically winning: scenes of Hitch negotiating studio executives, scenes of him running ideas past Reville, who greets them with the special flavor of classy deprecation that Mirren does so well, scenes of everybody on the set of Psycho going about the sausage-making of film production.

And parts of the movie suck: namely, the parts that assume that we're much, much more invested in Hitchcock and Reville as a married couple in crises than as a thorny pair of collaborators whose working relationship is made tricky by the fact that they are married, and that he has a notorious tendency to unsuccessfully seduce his leading ladies. I mean, there are dozens of hundreds of movies about marriages in crisis; the particular dynamic of the Hitchcock/Reville marriage as it was expressed through their filmmaking is something that has virtually never appeared anywhere else - for it requires an artist of Hitch's stature married to a woman of Reville's independence and creativity - and every minute the film plops her in a fictional, aggravatingly trite subplot about a flirty screenwriter played by a particularly unctuous Danny Huston is a minute it is not spending with the making of Psycho, and with the torments that come about when talented people try to push as hard against the system as quickly and to such an extreme as Hitchcock was doing with Psycho; hardly an accident that some of the film's most vibrant and alive scenes feature the director squaring off with MPAA censor Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith, impeccably cast), the most nuts-and-bolts moments in a film that veers drunkenly from being fixated on the minutiae of filmmaking in one moment to airing the broadest, most vague sentiments about obsessive personalities and lifelong romantic partners in the next, hardly elucidating Psycho, and by virtue of telling considerably exaggerated and fictionalised version of the participants' lives, doesn't do much to elucidate Hitchcock either, though I suppose if Hitchcock raises Reville's profile - even I, a Hitchcock junkie, have learned more about her in the run-up to this film than in the entirety of my life before now - then it's doing the Lord's work.

Aside from spending far too much time dawdling on subjects that it's hard to care about, Hitchcock is, anyway, largely insubstantial filmmaking; Sacha Gervasi, the director of the excellent documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil, making his fiction(ish) debut, demonstrates no real flair for anything other than making sure all the actors are in shot (a film about Psycho is required, I do think, to have something exciting going on stylistically), and he does very little to help along their performances: those who come to the table with all their talent in tow, like Hopkins and Mirren, are largely fine, though those who typically need a bit more nudging, like Scarlett Johansson (looking nothing like Janet Leigh) end up lost and confused-looking, and those who typically need all the help they can get, like Jessica Biel (passable as Vera Miles, the actress who committed the unforgivable sin against Hitch of having a personal life), flail about miserably and embarrassingly.

And since the movie is basically the "Oscars for Tony and Helen" show, let's go ahead and end with them: both are perfectly satisfactory, neither is revelatory: Mirren can do this kind of character in her sleep and very much seems to have done just that, rousing herself only for the florid Oscar clip scene that showed up so big in the trailer ("all they can see is the Great and Glorious genius AL-fred Hitch-cock!!!"), while Hopkins, considerable more alert and robust in his unashamedly hammy performance, resembles the famous director not at all: his makeup is a joke, but of course that's not the actor's fault, and while Hopkins gets the positively dehydrated sense of humor down, and in the film's opening nails a perfect "good evening", he doesn't come even close to capturing the psychological dysfunction that the movie wants us to see there, very clearly preferring to play a more avuncular Hitch than the screenplay apparently has in mind. But he's fun to watch without being deranged, like he can sometimes tend to be; I suspect the Hopkins fanboys (I am positive they exist) are going to be much happier with the movie than just about anyone else, because frankly, there's not much besides that to go on.

A last note: one of the unifying principals of the movie is that Hitchcock has visions, or hallucinations, or daydreams, of Wisconsin cannibal Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the inspiration for Robert Bloch's novel Psycho in the first place; the idea is that Gein is Hitchcock's dark muse, or evil kindred spirit, or something. It doesn't play and it's astonishingly stupid, and all by itself I should say that it costs the movie a whole entire point.