Sometimes genius draws nigh, mollifying the gnashing critic with the promise of wild narrative fusion, perhaps even rollicking wit. Alas, sometimes genius then languidly squirms aside, like a loathsome strumpet, leaving one's hopeful wantonness piqued but unfulfilled. Both cases apply to the boldly peculiar Scotland, PA., which sweeps up Shakespeare's Macbeth in the retro 1970s trappings of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, only to hover curiously short of its full potential for mirth and mayhem. Still, the movie is more fair than foul, and it succeeds well enough as a freakish experiment and mockery of all concerned.
We enter the titular setting circa 1972, encountering our antihero, Joe "Mac" McBeth (James LeGros), hard at work assistant-managing Duncan's, a rural fast-food restaurant owned and operated by the kind but firm patriarch Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn). Since Norm has two sons, one of them a contumelious wretch named Malcolm (Thomas Guiry) whom he's just promoted to manager, it's abundantly clear Mac will never become heir to the throne of Duncan's. Unless, of course, his scheming wife, Pat (Maura Tierney), has any say in the matter.
While the movie takes huge liberties with the structure and characters of the classic play--generously allowing the Bard a cheeky "story by" credit--the gist is fairly similar, and the primary theme is identical, namely: People are easily led to ruin while seeking shortcuts to prosperity. The main difference, of course, is that instead of the poetry and passion of Scottish nobles betraying one another for thrones of power, we've got American morons squabbling over a burger joint amid blaring rock blocks of Bad Company. (Slightly anachronistic though it may be, the producers missed a grand opportunity by failing to tap Journey's "Any Way You Want It," arguably the ultimate burger anthem.) The transposition blights none of the story's impact, but rather highlights it for audiences who--not unlike the film's characters--might otherwise find Shakespeare impenetrable; the movie could even be perceived as a bastard spawn of recent Middle American manifestos such as The Virgin Suicides or Wet Hot American Summer, albeit with grand themes scattered about like Easter eggs in a trashy trailer park.
Its bets on relatability thus hedged, Scotland, PA.'s plot thickens. While Norm's second son, Donald (Geoff Dunsworth), is a harmless, goody-goody theater poof obsessed with Cabaret and Godspell, he also bears keen witness to his rockin' brother Malcolm's conspicuous rage toward their square father. ("I'm not going to say this again," Norm threatens his wayward son, "hair net or haircut.") While the royal Duncan clan is embroiled by strife, Pat convinces Mac to kill Norm, using as an alibi their attendance at the Yahtzee birthday party of their somewhat thick friend Anthony "Banco" Banconi (Kevin Corrigan). While neither Mac nor Pat is generally a homicidal type, their motivation to murder is spurred by Norm's revolutionary concept--drive-thru fast food--which Mac has modified by suggesting an intercom for taking orders. "It's the future," Mac earnestly proclaims, but soon the McBeths' lust for the Duncan empire turns the celebrational Riunite to cold blood.
Given that this is writer-director Billy Morrissette's fledgling feature effort--his previous helming being a production of Bye Bye Birdie in eighth grade--it's impressive enough. The greenhorn has captured the essence of period dialect (Malcolm calls his life "sucky"), and his design crew succeeds in transforming Halifax, Nova Scotia, into a disturbing facsimile of Pennsylvania. (Does anyone make movies about America in America anymore?) From muscle cars to fondue, bad tans to chicken nuggets, the project's iconography is spot-on to the point of national collective nausea. Hats off as well to composer Anton Sanko for a score that seems ripped directly from Tom Waits' giddiest dreams.
Although LeGros' descent into hallucinatory madness provokes nervous titters, and Tierney is adept at fake smiles and consuming guilt, the story--like Shakespeare's--peaks whenever Mac's true nemeses show up. Christopher Walken could stand around mute and still steal the show--indeed, Morrissette never employs him to his fullest--but as the vegetarian, new-agey Lieutenant Ernie McDuff, the iconic Walken turns his investigation into a hoot and a half, deadpanning his reaction to Mac's free fries campaign ("Get 'em hooked, like kids on drugs; that's wonderful.") or displaying his dance moves to earn Donald's trust. Shakespeare's witches, on the other hand, are delivered with no such dryness, becoming pernicious, period-specific hippies not unlike chatty versions of the demonic skate rats in Kevin Smith's Dogma, played with wisely limited screen time by Andy Dick, Amy Smart and Timothy "Speed" Levitch. With these bizarre elements and suchlike, Morrissette makes a memorable show--not as entertaining onscreen as it is in theory, but well away from the realm of the sucky.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.