Hollywood gets its Shakespeare on — again — with mixed results. 

Bad to the Bard

Memo to Hollywood: Enough already!

Please sirs, leave William Shakespeare alone. Trust me, the mainstream, moviegoing public isn't interested. And those hearty, literary-types who are can't possibly take another misguided, reworked, retooled rendition of Master Will's monumental legacy.

But here we are again, looking at another round of films attempting to bring modern meaning and relevancy to Shakespeare's work. This month it's a new Gen X "Hamlet" courtesy of Michael Almereyda. In the next few weeks, Kenneth Branagh turns "Love's Labour's Lost" into a 1930s musical. Don't even get me started on Julia Taymor's sumptuous though misguided, surrealistic "Titus" (due out on videotape Aug. 15), which proves there's a reason why some of Shakespeare's work retains the literary appellation of "obscure."

But back to the Dane of the moment, "Hamlet." What could they have been thinking? Ethan Hawke as Hamlet? Julia Stiles, the reigning queen of teen romances, as Ophelia? Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius? Bill Murray as Polonius? OK, you're right, that at least is slightly intriguing in concept; the execution however, leaves something to be desired. Which pretty much sums up Almereyda's efforts. His style is low-keyed and plodding, and although his "Hamlet" clocks in at just under two hours, it feels much longer than Branagh's recent four-hour adaptation of the classic.

Set in New York City circa 2000, most of the Bard's well-known lines are there, but alas, poor Yorik didn't make the cut. Denmark is now the name of a corporation, not a country, and Claudius is a ruthless CEO. Computers and video cameras abound; in fact, when Old Hamlet's ghost (Sam Shepard in one of the movie's better performances) first appears, it's on a security monitor. The telling climatic duel between Laertes (Liev Schreiber, the movie's other good performance) makes use of both guns and swords.

Adding to the whole misguided reinterpretation is the fact that like Luhrmann, Almereyda decided to maintain the Old English language. But the impact of Shakespeare's English suffers greatly when it's being tossed off in the aisles of the neighborhood Blockbuster video store. While one could reasonably argue that it is nigh unto impossible to make a bad movie based on a play as perfect as "Hamlet," Almereyda nearly succeeds.

The acting is lackluster at best, starting with Hawke's bland, emotionally uninvolving prince. Stiles hasn't a clue as to what makes Ophelia tick much less why she is such a tragic character. And Murray's Polonious remains stiff and unwieldy.

Anyone with a real hankering for a cinematic shot of the Bard should wait for Branagh's "Love's Labour's Lost." Although it too suffers from hip-casting — we're talking Alicia Silverstone, here — this musical adaptation of a lesser-known Shakespeare comedy registers a few more hits than misses.

As if Branagh — who is credited as writer, director, producer and actor — isn't content enough with mucking around with the Bard's works, he also inserts about 10 musical numbers in that elaborately staged Busby Berkeley style. He also capitalizes on the physical comedy abilities of his stars Timothy Spall (Don Adriano de Armado) and Nathan Lane (Costard). Perhaps a wee bit too much.

Despite its musical trappings and light-hearted romance, the story remains the movie's weakest point. It seems that four young men — a king (Alessandro Nivola) and three buds (Branagh, Matthew Lillard and Adrian Lester) — sign a ridiculous pact: For three years while at university they will fast, forego women and sleep only three hours per day. Enter the lovely Princess of France (Silverstone) and her three comely attendants (Natascha McElhone, Carmen Ejogo and Emily Mortimer). Things go swiftly awry when Branagh entrusts a love letter to the care of the king's clown, Lane's Costard.

If Shakespeare's outdated storyline is the weakest point, the movie's highlights are some of the musical numbers. Most noteworthy are renditions of "Let's Face the Music and Dance," featuring the men in T-shirts and tight black pants, and the women with fishnet stockings and lots of cleavage; Lane's showstopping version of "There's No Business Like Show Business," and, the movie's finale, a bittersweet take on "They Can't Take That Away From You."

Although "Love's Labour's Lost" isn't on par with Branagh's other attempts at Shakespeare, it is an enjoyable trifle. Especially for those who don't take their Shakespeare too seriously.


"Love's Labour's Lost"


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