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Scotland, PA: A Movie Review

Updated on April 24, 2013

Shakespeare can be a tough sell these days, and as someone who did his senior thesis on Shakespeare's histories, that saddens me. I don't think it is because Shakespeare and his works are no longer applicable; even 400 years later, I still find the works of the Bard to be clever, witty, moving, and, above all, entertaining. Not all of them, to be fair (I'm definitely more partial to the tragedies and the histories than the comedies, but even then there are some comedies that I like). I think the problem is twofold. First, people (and by people, I mean people in high school; let's face it, that is where most people will be introduced to Shakespeare) are lazy; they think because Shakespeare's plays were written four centuries ago and he talks funny that it's automatically lame and they don't put in the effort to understand either the language or what it going on in the stories. The second problem is related to problem numero uno; rather than adjust to the language, people will seek out a film version of the corresponding play in order to understand what is happening on-stage, and when they do that they end up with a really crappy version. And a lot of those crappy versions tend to be ones that have been updated for the modern age.

Now, this is not to say that most modern retellings of Shakespeare are bad. There are quite a lot of them that are pretty good, in fact. I stand behind Baz Lurhmann's Romero + Juliet, Ian McKellen's is wonderful in the Nazi-riffic Richard III, and I kind of dig 10 Things I Hate About You, for instance. I would say, however, that if you compare the ratio of bad:good modern retellings to the ratio of bad:good straight adaptations, you'll find modern retellings have a greater chance of sucking than something that just follows the original script. And the films that people (read: teenagers) are more likely to see in this day and age will usually be the retellings instead of the originals. Think about it: teens today are a lot more likely to have seen the absolutely awful O than any of the decent versions of Othello.

Scotland, PA is one of the lucky ones. To give you a snapshot review, Scotland, PA is Macbeth set in 1970's Pennsylvania centered around a fast food restaurant and the invention of the drive-thru, all set to the tune of Bad Company's music. If that sounds a little goofy, it should, because this version of Macbeth is quite a bit funnier than the source material. Up until the part where Mac (Macbeth, played by James LeGros) contemplates killing Banko (Banquo, Kevin Corrigan), everything is played with a wink and a nod. Mac is a disgruntled fry cook, Pat (Lady Macbeth, Maury Tierny) is his waitress wife, Duncan (King Duncan, James Rebhorn) is an oblivious diner owner with big dreams, and McDuff (MacDuff, Christopher Walken) is a zany vegetarian detective with aspirations of owning his own restaurant one day. The base characters are the same, but writer-director Billy Morrisette asks us to look at the traditional play with a skewed eye and a smile on our face and he mostly succeeds. None of these interpretations feel so off the mark that the ties to the original completely fall apart.

In order to make something of themselves, Mac and Pat expose their boss as a thief and earn the confidence of the restaurant's owner, Duncan. Duncan, a father of two teenagers (I think? The movie is never too clear on how old these kids are supposed to be and one of them is possibly gay for some reason.), wants to push his eldest to take over the family business and the McBeth's realize they will never have any room for true advancement so long as Duncan is around. To that end, Pat convinces Mac they need to kill Duncan. It's only with a bit of prophecy from the Three Witches (played here by Andy Dick, Timothy Levitch, and Amy Smart) as three stoned hippies at the local carnival, imparted to Mac when he is absolutely plastered, that he agrees to go along with her plan and before they know it, they're in charge of the restaurant, inventing the drive-thru themselves, and are wildly successful. Unhappily for them, the police get involved, as tends to happen when murders occur, and visiting detective McDuff is leagues beyond the local police in terms of brain power. Not helping matters is the fact that Mac is starting to go insane and Pat has also started hallucinating that a burn on her wrist (that damned spot), obtained while they were killing Duncan, simply won't heal.

Everything here is played for laughs, even the death of Duncan, rendered here as an accidental deep-frying. Thankfully, the laughs are pretty good ones. Duncan's son just wants to play in a rock band. Calling the local police inept would be an insult to the truly inept out there. Numerous jokes revolve around a tanning salon. There aren't any knee-slappers here, but the absurdity of everyone involved in the plot keeps things moving, and Christopher Walken dancing is always good for a chuckle or three.

Where the movies starts to lose me is when Scotland, PA starts to feel like a movie written based on the Cliff's Notes version of Macbeth. All of the deeper symbolism and themes contained within the play have been truncated here. Mac's resolution has absolutely nothing to do with walking woods or a man not of woman born and the Witches don't even bother hinting towards that. The Witches themselves probably come across as the least successful of the modern adaptation. The final fates of the main players may match the more traditional tellings, but it all comes as a bit of a let-down without the delusions of grandeur and the utter insanity contained in Shakespeare's works. I still enjoyed the movie, as a whole, because the majority of what is here works quite well. Maura Tierney also does a fantastic job as Pat, managing to hold her own against Christopher Walken in her scenes with him and spending the rest of her time as a scheming, manipulative woman who slowly descends into insanity. I just wish she had a little bit more here to work with, because while this version of Lady Macbeth works, it pales in comparison to the depth of the original.

Worth watching, in my final estimation. Although I really suggest you go read the play, too. It's not Shakespeare's best, but it's a damn fine one.


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