Rehitting the showers

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

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, a specialist at ineffectual losers, plays the hapless private detective Arbogast. In the film's wittiest bit of updating, Julianna Moore, riffing on a mention in the old script that Marion's sister Lila works in a music 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--and less callow and boyish--than Anthony Perkins' in the original, yet Vaughn's portrayal is also oddly sympathetic.

Best of all, though, is Heche, who has the most difficult role. Removed from the '60s context of doing anything to get married, Marion's impulsive, plainly ruinous actions seem really nutty, and many of her lines come across as curiously over-ornate. Yet the actress is remarkably believable, overcoming the period gap, notably when chatting with Norman in his parlor.

Van Sant has reportedly wanted to take a stab at Psycho for at least a decade, and the publicity machine at Universal, which owns the property, has dutifully played up the resistance that he encountered. 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, really, how commercially daring a project is it? By big-studio standards the film was inexpensive to make, and critics everywhere could be counted on to supply free publicity 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 (1991) and Good Will Hunting (1997), are the ones for which he's been most acclaimed. Maybe the best 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, has usually been cited as that film's major flaw, but I've always thought it was one of its best jokes, a smirking goof on the patness of Freudianism. I was sorry that Van Sant, or perhaps Universal, chose to elide Robert Forster's more somber reading of it 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 the old 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. Written by Joseph Stefano, based on a novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianna Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, Robert Forster, Philip Baker Hall, and Anne Haney. Now showing.

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