Shakespeare Gets Mishandled by the David Kelley Twins

Michael Hoffman’s William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream materializes on the screen as a mélange of miscalculations. Let me count the ways. First, the colorful hyperrealism of the Tuscan settings for the Athens scenes makes the murky fairyland habitats manufactured in Rome’s Cinecittà studio look more lugubrious than liberating. Then there are the obtrusive anachronisms like bicycles and phonograph records, which become increasingly mirthless as the movie progresses.

The updating of Shakespeare is always a risky proposition, particularly when the play was written in one period, set in another, and brought to the screen in still another, with no corresponding changes in the text. Hence, the characters keep talking about Athens of ancient times even as the soundtrack is resounding with Puccini and Verdi arias, and the landscape remains lushly and definitely Italian.

Perhaps all these distractions would not matter too much if Mr. Hoffman and his colleagues had taken the precaution of recruiting a British cast to perform Shakespeare. Call me a mindless Anglophile if you wish, but I remain skeptical about the ability of even the best American actors to read Shakespeare’s lines without giving the impression that they are enduring very painful cultural root canal work. When you add to the mix a heavily accented French actress like Sophie Marceau, and have to slash her role of Hippolyta to ribbons to avoid embarrassing her, you have the makings of a disastrously “international” cast.

I was particularly saddened by the poor showings of two talented American performers like David Strathairn as Theseus, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania. The knives are already out for Calista Flockhart as Helena here, just as they were for her portrayal of Ally McBeal and as Time magazine’s anorexic poster bimbo of contemporary feminism. So I would like to take this opportunity to express my support of Ms. Flockhart in all her endeavors, and particularly as Ally McBeal, a lyrical original who gives me more pleasure every week on television than all but a very few performers in the movies. Her enemies will say with some justification that she plays Helena as if she were Ally McBeal, but isn’t that who Helena really is under all of the Bard’s iambic pentameter?

Think about it. She starts out chasing Demetrius (Christian Bale), who prefers Hermia (Anna Friel), but Hermia, in turn, loves Lysander (Dominic West) and runs off with him. Once in the enchanted forest, both Demetrius and Lysander are bewitched into chasing after Helena, and shunning Hermia. Is Helena happy with this sudden rush of attention? Not on your life. She’s so paranoid and so lacking in self-esteem that she assumes that Demetrius, Lysander and Hermia are all in cahoots to humiliate her with this fake turnabout in male affections. If that isn’t a cue for Ms. Flockhart to trot out her heartbreakingly exasperated expressions from Ally McBeal , I don’t know what is.

The American actors who would seem to disprove my theory of Shakespearean inadequacy are Kevin Kline as an expanded and romanticized Bottom, Stanley Tucci as an unconventional but effectively incisive Puck, Bill Irwin as an eloquently gestural Tom Snout, and Sam Rockwell as an unexpectedly vibrant Thisbe in “a tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisbe.”

That is to say, those Americans excel in Shakespeare’s prose characterizations of bumbling amateur actors, and not as his deeply poetic lovers. Indeed, the whole movie achieves its grace notes almost entirely from the drama within the drama. The centrality of Bottom’s role in the movie is enhanced by the introduction of his silently disapproving wife (Heather Elizabeth Parisi), silent of necessity since Shakespeare never conceived of her as a character. She is among the more dubious of Mr. Hoffman’s inventions, but nothing can compare in egregiousness with the mud-wrestling ordeal he inflicts on Helena and Hermia, and the acres of skin he reveals of the four lovers to express discovery of their true sexual affinities.

This gingerly salacity is a poor substitute for the extensive cuts in Shakespeare’s mythological analogies in his poetic dialectic between fact and fantasy, the city and the forest, the regulated state and the unbridled unconscious. But unlike some of my more censorious colleagues, I have come to feel that even mishandled Shakespeare is better than no Shakespeare at all in a world of increasingly brutalized and bedeviled sensibilities. Hermia’s modest reproof to Lysander’s premarital advances in the forest sounds almost revolutionary in 1999:

But gentle friend, for love and courtesy

Lie further off; in human modesty,

Such separation as may well be said

Becomes a virtuous bachelor and a maid,

So far be distant; and, good night, sweet friend:

Thy love ne’er alter till thy sweet life end.

Life Is Like High School

Alexander Payne’s Election , from a screenplay by Mr. Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, tidily deserves all the accolades it received as an intelligently fair-minded satire before I had a chance to see it. Unfortunately, it needs all the commercial help it can get. As George Kaufman once said, satire is what closes Saturday Night. And intelligent fair-minded satire is lucky to get released at all in this current atmosphere of institutional and generational scapegoating.

After all the buzz, what surprised me the most when I saw Election was that Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick was not at all the teenaged terror and monster I had been led to expect. True, she is a bit of an overachiever, but it is mostly hard work and fanatical attention to detail that gets her ahead, not ruthlessness, dishonesty and unbridled promiscuity. True, Tracy did cause Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik) to lose his wife and his teaching career by allowing the self-deluding would-be novelist to seduce her and get caught at it when Tracy’s hard-driving mother complained. Dave happened to be the best friend of Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister, a dedicated teacher in charge of student affairs.

Jim views Tracy’s inexorable campaign toward the school student presidency with ill-disguised loathing. When he persuades goodhearted campus hero Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against the hitherto unopposed Tracy in the name of democracy and free choice, Tracy smells a rat, indeed the right rat, and works twice as hard to foil Jim’s scheme. Meanwhile, Paul’s lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) gets upset over her girlfriend’s taking up with Paul to prove that she’s straight. Tammy decides to revenge herself on the girlfriend, Paul, the school and the world by running for class president herself on a platform of abolishing the essentially powerless student government altogether. Tammy eventually shows herself to be the smartest and most interesting character in the movie, and the most knowledgeable about what the world really is as opposed to what all the other characters fantasize it is.

Mr. Broderick gives by far the best performance of his career as the hapless teacher who is hoist by his own petard with his classroom mantra about “ethics” and “morality” turned against him. I can’t remember another movie in a long time hitting so many targets head-on without drawing blood. One of the strategies of the screenplay (and, I suppose, Mr. Perrotta’s novel, which I haven’t read) is to tell the stories of the major characters from their own point of view. Often the narration is contradicted by the images that accompany it. The many sharp jabs of satiric insight are too delicious to be described in detail.

As I alternated chuckling and laughing out loud at all the foolish mistakes and futile cover-ups shared by young, middle-aged and old alike, I thought of the remark attributed to Meryl Streep at a college commencement to the effect that life after college was not like college; it was like high school. Election is therefore directed not exclusively to teenagers, but to all of us squalling infants as we regress from crisis to crisis. The trouble is that’s the last thing today’s kids want to hear.

The Female Heir

Wu Tianming’s The King of Masks , from a screenplay by Wei Minglung, glows as a deceptively dated parable of gender reversal in a society in which the female is still systematically despised and degraded from birth, and even before. The society in the movie is ostensibly provincial Sichuan in 1930, long before Mao and even before Chiang Kai-shek, when rival warlords held sway.

Bian Lian Wang (Zhu Xu) plays the title role of an old magician who performs with a dizzying variety of masks in the streets. His one lingering regret is that he has no male heir to whom he can pass on the secrets of his craft when he dies. Despite his comparative poverty, Wang rejects the offer to join the troupe of an enormously popular cross-dressing male opera star. There is bitter irony in the spectacle of women swarming around the star in the belief that if they can touch the man in disguise they will be blessed with the birth of a boy child.

When Wang grasps the opportunity to purchase a male child cheap from his purportedly impoverished parents, he feels that he has been blessed in his turn by finding a replacement for his own son lost to illness long before. When he is rudely and graphically disillusioned by the evidence that his new heir is actually a girl, he casts her aside, but in the fullness of time learns to treasure her. Zhou Renying as Doggie, the little girl, is nothing short of electrifying, as the movie soars into the stratosphere of the noblest folk art.