Once again, Shakespeare is afforded a cinematic, contemporary rendering in `Scotland, Pa.,' written for the screen and directed by Billy Morrissette, an updated version of the tragedy, `Macbeth,' which here becomes a black comedy of tragic proportions. Morrissette jumps on the bandwagon that began in 1996 with Baz Luhrmann's `William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet,' which was followed by further spins on the bard's plays, including Julie Taymor's energetic and imaginative `Titus' in 99 and Michael Almereyda's dreadful and dreary `Hamlet' in 2000. Morrissette's offering-- which differs from the others in that it does not retain the Shakespearian language and verse-- falls somewhat beneath Luhrmann and Taymor's films, but far above Almereyda's dismal effort, which was a tragedy in ways that transcended the story. Be advised, this one is a `black comedy' in every sense of the definition, and actually comes in on the absolute `darkest' end of the spectrum. There's no getting around it, `Macbeth' is a depressing story to begin with, and this version decidedly captures the spirit of the play that inspired it.
This story begins with a look at businessman Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn), who after selling his successful donut shops (`Duncan' Donuts, anyone?) has established a hamburger stand, which due in no small part to the innovative ideas of employee Joe McBeth (James LeGros) and the support of Joe's wife, Pat McBeth (Maura Tierney)-- also an employee of Duncan's-- has become a successful enterprise, as well as a harbinger of a chain of fairly well-known burger stands that start with `M' and today enjoy the lion's share of the fast-food market. And now Norm has come up with his best idea yet, one that's going to take the simple burger stand into the future and put Duncan's at the top of the heap.
It's a grand scheme alright, and Norm graciously shares his intentions with his best employees, Joe and Pat. But there's a rub; the idea was originally Joe's, and Norm's taking the credit does not sit too well with the McBeth's, who envision a hamburger joint of their own, `McBeth's,' sitting beneath the huge arches formed by the big red `M' of the sign that stands above the entrance to the restaurant. And the whole business goes south very quickly, as `Norm's' idea leads a seething Joe and Pat down a path that must necessarily end in murder and mayhem if their plan is, in fact, acted upon. And is it? For the answer to that, one must look no further than the source material, and keep in mind the term, `tragedy.'
Billy Morrissette's is an interesting and fairly imaginative presentation, but in staying true to the essence of the play it takes you, finally, to a very dark place. And even though he supplies a rather amusing ending infused with shrouded irony, be advised, this one's a downer; and it may seem something of a contradiction in terms, but it's going to make you laugh in spite of yourself. And you'll hate yourself in the morning because of it.
Still, there's no denying that this is a clever, if just short of inspired, piece of filmmaking. The single drawback is the casting of LeGros in the lead role; he does a decent job, even acceptable by most standards, but he lacks the screen presence and charisma to really sell it. The part of Joe called for someone like Thomas Jay Ryan, who was so riveting in Hal Hartley's `Henry Fool' in 1998, a film which coincidentally featured another actor who could've pulled this part off successfully, and who happens to have a small, but pivotal role in this film, Kevin Corrigan.
Corrigan, a terrific character actor and unsung veteran of a number of indy films, in this one plays Anthony `Banco' Banconi, a co-worker and friend of the McBeth's who significantly figures into the tragedy as it ultimately plays out. Corrigan has the talent and just the kind of charismatic screen presence the role of Joe called for, and it's too bad that Morrissette and casting director Avy Kaufman didn't recognize the possibility that was right in front of them.
They did strike gold, however, with the casting of Tierney as Pat McBeth. She has a naturally endearing screen presence and expressive eyes that can speak volumes, which she uses to great effect here. And, as she's demonstrated since becoming an integral member of the cast of TV's `ER,' she plays extremely well to her `dark' side, which is precisely what the role of Pat called for. Needless to say, she does it quite well, turning in an altogether convincing and entirely believable performance.
Another actor who plays so well to his dark side, Christopher Walken, does a solid turn here as Lt. Ernie McDuff, the investigator probing the shady goings-on at Duncan's hamburger stand. In any role, Walken has a subtle, commanding presence, and this is no exception; here, though, he lends something of a light touch to the proceedings that is nevertheless in keeping with the seriousness of the story. Suffice to say, he does black comedy well. And, without question, it is Walken who `makes' the final shot of the film.
The supporting cast includes Tom Guiry (Malcolm Duncan), Andy Dick (The Hippie Jesse), Amy Smart (The Hippie Stacy), Timothy `Speed' Levitch (The Hippie Hector), Geoff Dunsworth (Donald Duncan), John Cariani (doing a hilarious turn as Ed the Cop), Nate Crawford (Robert/Richard) and Timothy Durkin (Frank the Pharmacist). It may not be especially memorable, but `Scotland, Pa.' is just quirky enough to be a worthwhile entry in the Put-A-Spin-On-Shakespeare festival, currently playing on a DVD or video near you.