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IN SHORT: A Stupendous and side splitting production, with minor reservations.
"One of the tests of Shakespeare's greatness is that people can do such rotten productions of his plays but there's something timeless in the human interactions that he's captured." -- David Mamet (from his CrankyCritic.com StarTalk).
How nice, then, when the production is far from rotten. With a sumptuous production design and a final act that is downright sidesplitting, screenwriter/director Michael Hoffman's reset of what is perhaps Shakespeare's greatest romantic comedy, to Northern Italy at the turn of this century, is pretty satisfying. Only at the end do all the references to the characters as "Athenian" --the film is set in Italy and all the music is operatic slash classic -- start to get in the way. It's a minor annoyance.
More important, as I've written in reviews of previous film versions of the Bard's work is: How easy is it to follow, or more precisely how long does it take for you to understand, language that is 400 years old? Second, if you can follow it, how enjoyable is the story that plays out before you? Cranky admits, to his mother's eternal shame, that he managed to duck most everything beginning with the syllable "Shakes-" until he was past 30, excepting the Mr. Magoo version of Midsummer Night, of course. I know more of Oberon and Titania from Neil Gaiman's use of the characters in his work, so my two rules of "getting" Shakespeare, methinks, fairly represent most of the folk who tell me they read these things.
Most of A Midsummer Night's Dream scores at about an 80% rate. I find that, personally, I have more trouble with Shakespeare's flowery, romantic language than I do with his battle and high testosterone epics. Still, the core story is pretty simple. Hermia (Anna Friel) loves Lysander (Dominic West) but must marry Demetrius (Christian Bale), at father Egeus's (Bernard Hill) orders. Duke Theseus (David Straithairn) adjudicates in Egeus' favor, offering Hermia the choice of marriage or death, though becoming a nun is also mentioned. She chooses to elope and reveals her plan to Helena (Calista Flockhart) who coverts Demetrius for herself. [In 1990s terms, Helena is a stalker, but Flockhart tosses enough Allie McBeal-isms into her performance to keep it light and amusing, though the same mannerisms for some reason totally pissed off the women sitting around me.] Demetrius chases his love into the forest and he, in turn, is followed by Helena.
The forest is the domain of Fairy Queen Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her husband Oberon (Rupert Everett), who themselves are experiencing a severe marital tiff. Also in the woods are a quintet of local workers, preparing a play to present in honor of the Duke's forthcoming wedding. If I continued to explain how Oberon, with the aid of right-hand satyr Puck (Stanley Tucci), screws with the romantic entanglements of the young lovers, and makes his wife fall in love with an ass, you'd never go near a theater. Let's just say it's fairly amusing and leave it at that.
Kevin Kline is Nick Bottom, the ass, transmogrified from his humble beginnings as a lovelorn actor by a whiff of Puck's fairy dust, and he absolutely steals the show. Once the night of enchantment has ended and the day has come for the Duke's wedding and the play's performance, that's when A Midsummer Night's Dream kicks significant comedic patootie. Kline, in Master Thespian mode, bulges his eyes and overacts up wazoo, scrambling his lines to the ire of "director" Roger Rees. The supporting cast includes mime Bill Irwin (who talks, reluctantly), ALF's "dad" Max Wright (as the chain-smoking "man in the moon") and Sam Rockwell all of whom deliver gag after gag before, in true Shakespearian fashion, everybody dies.
It being a love story, of course, Love wins out in the end. A Midsummer Night's Dream is easy to follow though Cranky was not enraptured by the proceedings until the final act -- and as an epilog there is a final scene in which the restored Bottom sees Titania and realizes that his dream of true love was not a dream at all. To get an audience to feel sympathy for a buffoon is a mighty act to achieve, yet Kline does it easily. At that moment, what was predominantly an "OK" flick became something much more satisfying.
Pfeiffer and Friel look spectacular. The use of "newfangled" bicycles as principle props will have you thinking "Wicked Witch of the West" when you hear one of Calista Flockhart's early speeches, as will Kevin Kline's demonstration of how a Lion should Roar (sounding remerkably like Bert Lahr) . The special effects work creates a real magical air as Fairies become wisps of light, and vice versa. Hoffman's take is superior to (though it doesn't have the MTV look of) the Romeo+Juliet. It is shy of what remains the most spectacular relocation of Shakespeare's work, Richard III starring Ian McKellen.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for A Midsummer Night's Dream, he would have paid . . .
Date flick level, though I think teens'll stay the hell away 'cuz the actors are a lot more adult than Leo and Claire. Frankly, Cranky almost could've passed on this, but the final rave up by Kevin Kline and Co. is worth the price of admission all by itself.
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