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At the Movies

No staid approach


Even if you’ve gone to more than your share of “Hamlet” movies, you’ve never seen anything quite like Michael Almereyda’s new mod version. Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), after killing his predecessor and marrying his wife Gertrude (Diane Venora), has become CEO of the New York-based Denmark Corporation, and Hamlet (Ethan Hawke), wearing a Peruvian knit cap with earflaps, is a resentful student video-maker.

John de Borman’s photography for Hamlet projects a sinister beauty on the nighttime city, and Claudius’ opening speech is given at a media and press conference where he mocks Fortinbras’ bid for a corporate takeover.

Almereyda uses Shakespeare’s text but trims it to less than two hours, perhaps responding to the box office failure of Kenneth Branagh’s uncut “Hamlet” a few years back. If the latter version sometimes annoyed me by offering visuals during lengthy speeches, as if lacking confidence in the text, it was intelligently aimed at older, more traditional viewers. Almereyda does far less for the poetry, preferring to capture the young with digital imagery. He stages “To be or not to be” in the action aisle of a Blockbuster video store.

The movie does sharpen our awareness of the evil set in motion when Ophelia is told to spy on Hamlet, and she is shown wearing a listening device in a last rendezvous with her distraught lover. Unfortunately, Julia Stiles makes Ophelia such a sullen teenager that she loses the sympathy we should extend to a powerless young woman, and giving her a downtown pied-à-terre undermines the assumption that she could never act on her own.

Bill Murray strikes a more authentic note in humorously underlining the lackey mentality behind Polonius’ advice. Liev Schreiber’s Laertes reveals a solid Shakespearean training, and Diane Venora conveys a brittle glamour as well as the emotional strain that has brought her near collapse.

The irony is that Ethan Hawke, whose star status apparently made it possible to get financial backing for the movie, reveals the weakness at its center. His Hamlet is no noble prince, but a spoiled, self-centered young man. A brief televised glimpse of James Dean suggests the kind of hero with whom he could identify. In addition, the decision to turn a number of Hamlet’s soliloquies into interior monologues, which he has previously recorded and to which we now listen with him, robs the lines of their power. The later scenes of the movie are especially weak, offering no hint of Hamlet’s readiness and renewed sense of purpose. Almereyda has placed his bet on younger viewers identifying with all the ingenious ways communication is conveyed: computer screens, TV sets, an elevator monitor, overheard phone conversations. The play-within-the-play, staged to “catch the conscience” of Claudius, becomes a projection of Hamlet’s video “The Mousetrap,” which will leave those unfamiliar with Shakespeare asking questions.

They will be even more confused by Hamlet’s decision not to kill Claudius when he has the opportunity. Apparently the motive in the original -- that Claudius was repentant at the time and would likely go to heaven -- was considered too foreign to a contemporary audience, and the hero’s action is left inexplicable. If the director’s decisions lead today’s students to read the play for themselves (and better yet, see it in on the stage), his boldness will be justified.

I liked the idea of TV commentator Robin McNeill delivering the official summary at the end -- “The rest is silence” -- but when I called up my old friend Aristotle by long, long distance, all he said was, “No catharsis.”

Although Keeping the Faith might seem like a natural for NCR readers, it’s more modest ambition is to be an escapist New York-based comedy. An appropriate framing device, in which a drunken Brian (Edward Norton) tells the story to a patient but skeptical bartender, makes it clear we’re supposed to view the proceedings with amusement. When Brian reveals himself to be a priest, the bartender explains that he has Muslim, Christian and Jewish relatives and is quite ready to hear his confession.

It quickly develops that Brian’s best friend Jake (Ben Stiller) is a rabbi; they’ve been buddies since grammar school when they were both captivated by Anna, a tomboy who rescued them from a bully with a well-aimed kick. Anna’s parents took her away to California when they were still kids; now, almost 20 years later, their blond heroine is back, a gorgeous, super-confident, successful businesswoman (Jenna Elfman), creating a highly improbable romantic triangle.

The movie has easy fun establishing Norton and Stiller as ill-prepared modern clerics. Jake’s only apparent qualification is that he used to collect “Heroes of the Torah” cards instead of baseball cards when he was a boy. He passes out the first time he’s asked to witness a circumcision. Brian is no better, becoming so unbalanced when swinging a censer that he sets his clothes on fire. Their Manhattan West Side congregations, however, apparently find their standup comic routines a pleasant change from more staid approaches to spirituality.

Although Stiller is a less convincing rabbi -- his aggressiveness seems self-centered -- than Norton is a priest, Stiller’s function in the plot is more central since his job security and advancement presumably depend on his getting married. This offers a pretext for several cliché comedy scenes in which Jake dates overeager Jewish young women. He finds the process so unnerving that he finally inveigles Brian and Anna to join him and a successful woman TV personality on a double date. Though Brian has earlier assured Anna that his commitment to the priesthood, including the requirement of chastity, is total, he sheds his clericals and enjoys the evening. But the experiment proves a disaster for Jake. Or perhaps a revelation -- since at the end he is seen racing to Anna’s door, where they fall into each other’s arms.

I leave it to you to speculate on Brian’s further role in this romantic comedy, which leads back to the bar where it began.

Norton does well in his first directing assignment, but the movie’s most successful moments are made possible by bit players -- the recording equipment salesman, the elderly Central European priest-counselor (Milos Forman), and of course the bartender. When Anna asks, “Am I spiritually empty?” I was sorely tempted to shout yes -- not that it would be impossible to imagine walking out of a rectory to join her.

The movie wants to say, “Lighten up. Anyone who is against love is a bigot,” but isn’t something more than intolerance involved in the concern of Jake’s congregation about his marrying a non-Jew? The uncomfortable fact is that “Keeping the Faith” is just one more Hollywood confection in which religion is mostly an amusing oddity.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2000