The only thing worse than a movie that sucks is a movie that didn’t have to suck, but did. For me, one of the best examples of the is the 2000 production of Hamlet directed by Michael Almereyda and starring Ethan Hawke in the title role.
Now, I know some people have problems with modern adaptations of Shakespeare, but I’m not one of those people. I happen to love them. Ten Things I Hate About You is one of my standby “get happy” movies and I directed a production of Julius Caesar set in Argentina during the Great Depression. So Hamlet in modern New York City I can totally handle. Then we turn to the cast: I don’t love Ethan Hawke, but he’s a competent enough actor. Julia Stiles is no Helena Bonham Carter, but I enjoy her for the most part. Kyle MacLachlan, Sam Shepard, Bill Murray, Liev Shreiber… It seems like the makings of something great.
Sadly, it is not. Modernized Shakespeare I can handle, but “To be or not to be” in a Blockbuster? You’re pushing it to start with then you get all cheeky and make it clear that Hammy’s standing in the “Action” section while deciding whether or not to take action. Seriously? I don’t need to get hit by a baseball bat. Please and thanks.
A big part of the problem with the movie is its brevity. Now ordinarily a mediocre movie should be as short as possible. But in this case so much has been cut it’s almost impossible to follow the plot. And this is speaking as someone who spent two years teaching Hamlet and knows that play inside and out. I mean, come on, the “Gravedigger scene” is reduced to a five second clip of Jeffrey Wright digging a grave while singing “All Along the Watchtower” (yes, I get your cheeky reference to the joker) (also, we now know the Gravedigger was a cylon). I realize the scene is particularly hard to manipulate into a modern setting, but… Cutting it is wrong. It’s wrong, I tell you.
The fencing scene at the end kind of starts out fun, but ends in triteness and then just ends. Which you’re happy about by this point.
Bill Murray is a good actor, but he seriously bombs as Polonius. It’s very unfortunate. And Julia Stiles, bless her heart, really fumbles with her dialog. I also felt like Hamlet was a little too emo depressed without actually acting crazy enough.
And then there’s the rubber duck. Which I just don’t get.
But the really frustrating thing is, there’s a lot about this movie which doesn’t suck. There’s a lot about this movie which is downright good. What Julia Stiles fumbles away in dialog she more than makes up for in crazy. The break up scene and the mad scene are really well done. You see a genuine young couple torn apart because of parental influence. And then you see a young woman totally losing her shit when her boyfriend breaks up with her voice mail. And it’s glorious.
Kyle MacLachlan is so deliciously smarmy as Claudius, I love it. Honestly, of the versions I’ve seen (I have not seen Patrick Stewart’s) he’s my favorite Claudius. And the first one I understood Gertrude falling for. Speaking of Gertrude, I thought Diane Venora did a fine job in her second go round as a lousy mother in a modern day Shakepeare adaptation. Liev Schreiber’s Laertes is… well, let me put it this way: ordinarily I see Laertes as kind of spineless and lame. This Laertes? I kinda want to let do dirty things to me. I like seeing a Laertes with a backbone. It’s a nice change.
And yet, the good is not nearly enough to make up for the bad. The movie didn’t have to suck, but it did.