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Ethan Hawke's Hamlet should have decided "not to be."

By Chris Davis

JULY 24, 2000:  He's under a lot of stress, and who can blame the boy for being a little moody? His father has been murdered, and his uncle, his father's brother, has gone off and married his mother before the corpse even cooled. Hamlet's brain is, as a wise man once said, "heat oppressed," and understandably so. He thinks he's seeing ghosts. When he's alone he talks to himself. A lot. At times he seems to be, nay, is experiencing some kind of psychological collapse -- like Michael Douglas in Falling Down -- but he isn't crazy in the conventional sense. There is method to it. Still, he can't sleep, and try as he might, he can't still the voices in his hyperactive brain. So he babbles on and on: pondering the megalithic riddles of mortality, plotting a bloody revenge that he can't quite bring himself to enact.

Of course, this reasonable assessment of Hamlet's behavior in no way, form, or fashion describes the miserable, mumbling performance of Ethan Hawke. With a slack jaw and a blank affect, the Gen-X icon slouches and monotonously drones his way through some of the juiciest lines ever written. Hamlet's medical affliction, Melancholia, requires manic highs to match the dreary lows, and his instructive "speech to the players" shows the kind of focus, joy, and exuberance that even a mad, mad, melancholy Dane can have. But that scene, important as it is, has been cut in favor of extra face time for the tedious, easily excised Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sub-plot. On top of it all, Hawke, who has successfully eliminated every minute trace of Hamlet's sharp wit and crazed charm, plays the Prince of Denmark like he was entering a limbo competition. He just sinks lower and lower. Perhaps the actor's whispery approach is an attempt to make Shakespeare's dense prose seem more natural. If that is the case, then here is the rub: Shakespeare's lines are, by painstaking design, entirely unnatural. To struggle against his intrinsic rhythms is not only vain, it's suicide. Yet Hawke's performance is not the film's worst. Not by a longshot.

Polonius, the doomed father of Ophelia and Laertes is a social climber and a dilettante. Like a soulless motivational speaker he quotes lofty aphorisms praising nobility, virtue, and thrift, but is himself a hypocritical, ass-kissing buffoon. It is a role rich in comedy and pathos. It is therefore a role that Bill Murray, who does shallow so very well, was born to play. And who knows, perhaps someday in someone else's film, he may finally be allowed to play the part. Here, however, his comic skills are undermined by ill-advised cuts and exceedingly large helpings of solemnity.

Michael Almereyda, the latest director to hop on the Bard's recently retooled bandwagon, has made a ponderous, nearly incoherent film out of what is arguably still the greatest tragedy of the English language. The even bigger tragedy is that Almereyda had in his possession all of the right tools to make the greatest Hamlet of all time. Though the film seldom reflects it, the cast is a dream come true. Hawke is, in theory, an ideal choice for the Dane. David Lynch's all-purpose pretty-boy Kyle MacLachlan is, as always, impeccably scrubbed, and this makes the ambitious Claudius seem extra slimy. Casting Bill Murray as Polonius was (and this too remains theory) borderline genius. But these strong, oft-proven personalities all disappear in the mix, unable to escape either the irreparably butchered text, or the grossly solipsistic film's immense, self-generated gravity. Sam Shepard is the only actor who brings anything remotely fresh to his role. His is an angry, vengeful spirit. There are no traces of sadness or regret, only the nascent anger of a cutthroat businessman who has been doublecrossed on a deal.

Conceptually Hamlet should have been sound. Turning the play's traditional setting, "the Kingdom of Denmark," into "the Denmark Corporation" is a clever, potentially useful convention. It could have also been an apt metaphor had the locations been incorporated into the plot and used for anything more than urban eye-candy.

Here's the skinny: With Hamlet, Shakespeare provided actors everywhere an acting lesson so simple and thorough that no other lessons are really necessary. The acclaimed film director Nicholas Ray adhered to it absolutely, and it is playwright David Mamet's mantra. "Suit the action to the word, and the word to the action," he wrote. And if that small bit of wisdom isn't the solution to all of the problems in performance combined, it is certainly and without doubt the all-fitting key to acting Shakespeare. It is apparently a key to which Almereyda is not privy. In a story like Hamlet, where so few characters are able to reconcile their beliefs with their behavior, the alignment of word and deed represents a desired, but unachievable state of grace. -- Chris Davis

Bossa Nova, Bruno Barreto's 14th feature film, is a typical "feel good" romantic comedy, with star-crossed lovers more Nora Ephron than Shakespeare. The plot -- involving several couples who break up and subsequently hook up in present-day Rio de Janeiro -- is chock-full of charm. It's also chock-full of characters -- nine! -- so that some are difficult to keep track of and care about -- with the exception of an English teacher, Mary Ann Simpson (Amy Irving, also Barreto's wife), and Pedro Paulo (Antonio Fagundez), a lawyer whose wife leaves him for a Tai-Chi-Chuan instructor.

Mary Ann is a former flight attendant and widow who has been living in Rio for two years, since the death of her husband. Her beauty leaves men swooning in circles for her, and Irving is as entertaining and self-conscious as she was in Crossing Delancey. An elevator door fatefully unites her with Pedro Paulo, and Paulo immediately enrolls in her English class, eventually wooing her and the viewer as the pair get more and more ridiculously intertwined.

Mary Ann's English classes serve as the catalyst for comedy through linguistic errors, and thus, misunderstandings. Among Mary Ann's students are the Internet-romantic Nadice (Drica Moraes) and Acácio (Alexandre Borges), Rio's biggest soccer scorer, who's been sold to an English team. Acácio, who enrolls in Mary Ann's English class because he wants to learn grammatically correct curse words, splits his scenes by soliciting Mary Ann until he meets Paulo's precocious law intern, Sharon. Nadice, on the other hand, spends all of her energy pining for her Internet sweetheart, Gary, a tattooed artist in a loft in Soho. Nadice swoons when he signs off, "Love Gary," until Mary Ann explains that in America, everyone says I love you, as casually as they say good-bye.

Gary eventually seeks out Nadice in Rio, and he turns out to be Trevor (Stephen Tobolowsky), a lawyer who is much less than avant-garde. "He's much better in bed than he looks," Nadice reveals to Mary Ann. Nadice and Trevor realistically represent the millions of people who feel left out and incapable of a romantic relationship. The romance-driven whims of the characters reinforce the movie's theme: two is better than one. Eventually, all of the lovers become expectedly linked.

The soundtrack of Tom Jobim's Bossa Nova classics, combined with the gorgeous backdrop, gives a backbone to even the film's lazier love affairs.

The film's languages are as tangled as the plot, and subtitles are used about half the time. From the straightlaced American lawyer to the over-sexed Brazilian soccer stud, everyone eventually meets his match. The on-screen melting pot shows that love is ageless, colorless, and cures all. -- Jamie Schmidt


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