Olden Shower

Gus Van Sant's re-Psycho'ed Hitchcock classic is a little dated, but not without fresh blood

Marion, a young secretary from Phoenix, has swiped $400,000 in cash (in the original, it was $40,000) from her boss, and then gone on the lam to give the money to her boyfriend, a small-town California hardware dealer who can't marry her until he's paid off his debts. This young unmarried couple who, in the '90s, go to the trouble to get a cheap room to hide their trysts, seem weirder than Norman. So does Marion's office mate (Rita Wilson) when she keeps smugly reminding her co-worker that she's married--is that still a female status symbol?

On a sociological level, the long, red-herring prologue may be the most intriguing portion of this Psycho--it tells us the most about the differences between now and then. Sadly, the cheerfully condescending sexism of the rich good ol' boy (Chad Everett) and the car dealer (James LeGros) still seem entirely plausible.

Van Sant has cast the film well, with one exception--the mumbling Mortensen, handsome though he is, hardly seems like someone for whom you'd steal 400,000 bucks. William H. Macy plays the hapless private detective Arbogast; he's becoming such a specialist at ineffectual losers that he could be called the new Elisha Cook Jr. In the film's wittiest bit of updating, Julianne Moore, riffing on a suggestion in the old script that Marion's sister Lila works in a record store, plays her as a tough, retro-clad vinylhead.

Vaughn is excellent. Between this performance and the giggling sicko he gave us in the recent Clay Pigeons, he more than makes up for his post-Swingers sophomore slump in Return to Paradise. His Norman is more physically imposing, less callow and boyish, than that of Anthony Perkins, yet Vaughn's, too, is oddly sympathetic.

Best of all, though, is Anne Heche, who has the most difficult role. Removed from the 1960s context of doing anything to get married, Marion's impulsive, plainly ruinous actions seem really nutty, and many of her lines seem curiously over-ornate. Perhaps this isn't as noticeable in the original because Janet Leigh, who played Marion, was always getting stuck with lines like that; check out her crazy verbiage in The Manchurian Candidate and Touch of Evil. Yet Heche makes the lines her own--chatting with Norman in his parlor, she is remarkably believable, overcoming the period gap.

Van Sant has reportedly wanted to take a stab at Psycho for at least a decade, and the publicity machine at Universal, the owner of the property, has dutifully played up the resistance with which he was met at the idea. That way, if the film proves a triumph, they can hail Van Sant as their visionary genius, and if it's a dud, they're covered. But how commercially daring a project was it, really? The film was inexpensive to make, by big-studio standards, and critics everywhere could be counted on to supply most of the publicity for free, by elaborately asking who the heck Van Sant thinks he is.

The answer is that he's a superb filmmaker, even if his two weakest pictures, My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting, are the ones for which he's been most acclaimed. Maybe the most interesting thing to come out of the overrated Good Will Hunting was the clout it gave Van Sant to indulge this bizarre whim. I really enjoyed watching this Psycho, although I don't know--nor do I much care--if it's because it's a good movie or just because it's an irresistible experiment.

What I found most disappointing about the new film, actually, were the scenes that it left out. The long, explanatory monologue of the psychiatrist, delivered with rather inappropriate self-satisfied glee by that fine actor Simon Oakland at the end of the original Psycho, has usually been cited as that film's major flaw, but I've always thought it was one of the film's best jokes, a smirking goof on the patness of Freudianism. I was sorry that Van Sant, or perhaps Universal, chose to slash Robert Forster's more somber reading of it down by more than half.

I was also sorry to lose one whole scene, and part of another, featuring the skeptical Sheriff (Philip Baker Hall) and his wife (Anne Haney). In Van Sant's version, Haney doesn't get to deliver one of Psycho's few sweetly poignant lines, when she hears a mention of "Mrs. Bates" and optimistically asks, "Norman took a wife?"

Directed by Gus Van Sant; with Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, Robert Forster, Anne Haney and Rita Wilson.


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