If you've read or seen a production of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, you're already familiar with this story. Reset in a 1970's fast-food restaurant, this funny but spotty adaptation is a good idea that wasn't executed as well as it could have been. When Joe "Mac" McBeth's idea for this newfangled Drive-Thru thingie merits him only feint rewards, he and his wife do in his boss, Norm Duncan. As you know, he merits some short-term rewards, but everything goes downhill from there.
This movie has some really sharp visuals--the cinematography is gorgeous--and the soundtrack is laced with some well-chosen AM radio hits from the time period in question. The beginning has some of the wittiest indi-film humor in years. But as we reach the climax, the filmmakers start playing funny with Shakespeare's sequence, moving a lot of Acts IV and V material up to act III to put the climax closer to the resolution. The jokes become sparse, and the ironic self-referential Macbeth material becomes grating rather than funny.
By making Mac McBeth a businessman and respected community member, the tragic downfall remains part of the character, but by having the character never change, or even cut his hair, and by having his final downfall take place privately and in the dark of night, we are left with anticlimax rather than Aristotelian catharsis. This movie was a great idea, but it wasn't carried though in the best possible way. Here's hoping someone else takes a shot at it again when the chance comes.
As director Billy Morrissette points out in a preview accompanying the movie, SCOTLAND, PA is Macbeth but for high school students who struggle with Shakespeare, who are stoned, or both.
Shakespeare's tale of the Scottish warrior turned king is moved from medieval Scotland to 1970s America. Norm Duncan (James Reborn) owns a popular local diner named Duncan's. He's a respective businessman in the small town of Scotland, PA and his hardest-working employee is Joe "Mac" McBeth (James LeGros). Mac's best friend, Anthony "Banko" Banconi (Kevin Corrigan) gives Mac some inside information about some embezzling that the manager, Douglas McKenna (Josh Pais), is involved in. Mac and his wife, Pat (Maura Tierney), Doug in the act, inform Duncan, and watch as he's fired and thrown out of the restaurant. Mac thinks it's his big break, but Duncan only promotes him to Assistant Manager. Tired of being an "underachiever trying to make up for lost time", Pat convinces Mac to take drastic action. She wants Mac to kill Duncan, but he can't bring himself to kill the man. But gravity takes over and Mac doesn't have to. Thus begins a rise to power for the McBeths who watch over as the business blossoms. Duncans becomes McBeth's, a fast food restaurant complete with the first drive-thru window in town and a French fry truck that drives around town delivering free French fries. But something's rotten in the town of Scotland and a big shot police detective named McDuff (Christopher Walken) is assigned to investigate Duncan's murder. As McDuff unravels what has happened, the McBeth's struggle to hold on to the happy life they have now acquired, no matter what the cost.
The movie does an excellent job at updating the story of Macbeth for modern audiences. The film does skip some of the psychological buildup of Act IV of the play and the ending seems a bit rushed (that's partially because of finances and time issues with the filmmakers). Nevertheless, the heart of the story remains intact. Also, unlike the play (which except for witches farting and the Porter, has very little comic relief) the movie is very funny. It's a dark tragic-comedy. I was an English major and I teach English and I love the movie. However, I know that there are some diehard Shakespeare buffs who are upset that the film cuts so much out from the original play. I don't have an issue with it because the movie stays true to the spirit of the original play.
Overall, a highly entertaining and imaginative update of Macbeth that any Shakespeare fan or movie buff should see at least once. Also recommended for reluctant high school students and stoners.
Given that Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" is out there any other director wanting to do a transposition of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" would have to want to go in a different direction, which is what Billy Morrissette does with "Scotland, PA." My reductionalistic take on this 2001 film would that it crosses "Macbeth" with McDonalds, but that is rather simplistic and too cute to do this wicked little film justice. However, that suggestion would certainly point to the fact that Morrissette is veering off into the realm of black comedy, that would be on point.
What little you remember about "Macbeth" from any previous encounter with this particular text by the Bard will probably serve you in good stead. You are not going to be distracted by noticing strong parallels; in fact, if you see the three hippies sitting on the Ferris wheel and think of the three witches, then you are probably ahead of the curve. As long as you know who Macbeth (James LeGros) kills and why you can appreciate the dark humor, otherwise "Scotland, PA" will strike you as strange beyond comprehension and only when Christopher Walken shows up as Lt. Ernie MacDuff, the cop investigating the murder, will you breath easier. This Macbeth and his wife, Pat (Maureen Tierney), work at a fast-food burger stand back in 1972 in the titular town in Pennsylvania run by Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn). Apparently Morrissette suffered intense psychological scarring in such a place as a lad and in the great tradition of independent film making gets his revenge on celluloid.
This Macbeth dreams of one day being manager of the place and when he learns the current boss (Josh Pais) is ripping off the place, the Macbeth turn him in to boss and await their reward. But when Duncan decides that his two sons Malcolm (Tom Guiry) and Donald (Geoff Dunsworth) are going to inherit the place (admitted, a radical notion), Macbeth's lady gets super ticked. When her husband's idea of a drive-through pays off she pushes him (repeatedly) to kill Duncan, knowing they can buy the restaurant from the two sons, who could not care less. In the best line of the film she tells her husband, "We're not bad people, Mac, we're just underachievers who have to make up for lost time."
Most of the dark comedy in this film consists of bits that are essentially throw-aways, so be sure to pay attention (especially when the local deputy is on the screen). The character of Macbeth is actually more of a wimp than the original and it is Tierney's Mrs. Macbeth that steals pretty much every scene she is in throughout the film (unless, of course, Walken pops up). Appropriate to the context of the story this time around, her "spot" is a grease burn and in the end there is only one way to get it out. "Scotland, PA" will not be a classic Shakespeare update, but it is certainly one of the quirkiest interpretations of the bard to come down the Pennsylvania turnpike.
on November 23, 2002
Once again, Shakespeare is afforded a cinematic, contemporary rendering in "Scotland, Pa.," written for the screen and directed by Billy Morrissette, an updated version of the tragedy, "Macbeth," which here becomes a black comedy of tragic proportions. Morrissette jumps on the bandwagon that began in 1996 with Baz Luhrmann's "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet," which was followed by further spins on the bard's plays, including Julie Taymor's energetic and imaginative "Titus" in `99 and Michael Almereyda's dreadful and dreary "Hamlet" in 2000. Morrissette's offering-- which differs from the others in that it does not retain the Shakespearian language and verse-- falls somewhat beneath Luhrmann and Taymor's films, but far above Almereyda's dismal effort, which was a tragedy in ways that transcended the story. Be advised, this one is a "black comedy" in every sense of the definition, and actually comes in on the absolute "darkest" end of the spectrum. There's no getting around it, "Macbeth" is a depressing story to begin with, and this version decidedly captures the spirit of the play that inspired it.
This story begins with a look at businessman Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn), who after selling his successful donut shops ("Duncan" Donuts, anyone?) has established a hamburger stand, which due in no small part to the innovative ideas of employee Joe McBeth (James LeGros) and the support of Joe's wife, Pat McBeth (Maura Tierney)-- also an employee of Duncan's-- has become a successful enterprise, as well as a harbinger of a chain of fairly well-known burger stands that start with "M" and today enjoy the lion's share of the fast-food market. And now Norm has come up with his best idea yet, one that's going to take the simple burger stand into the future and put Duncan's at the top of the heap.
It's a grand scheme alright, and Norm graciously shares his intentions with his best employees, Joe and Pat. But there's a rub; the idea was originally Joe's, and Norm's taking the credit does not sit too well with the McBeth's, who envision a hamburger joint of their own, "McBeth's," sitting beneath the huge arches formed by the big red "M" of the sign that stands above the entrance to the restaurant. And the whole business goes south very quickly, as "Norm's" idea leads a seething Joe and Pat down a path that must necessarily end in murder and mayhem if their plan is, in fact, acted upon. And is it? For the answer to that, one must look no further than the source material, and keep in mind the term, "tragedy."
Billy Morrissette's is an interesting and fairly imaginative presentation, but in staying true to the essence of the play it takes you, finally, to a very dark place. And even though he supplies a rather amusing ending infused with shrouded irony, be advised, this one's a downer; and it may seem something of a contradiction in terms, but it's going to make you laugh in spite of yourself. And you'll hate yourself in the morning because of it.
Still, there's no denying that this is a clever, if just short of inspired, piece of filmmaking. The single drawback is the casting of LeGros in the lead role; he does a decent job, even acceptable by most standards, but he lacks the screen presence and charisma to really sell it. The part of Joe called for someone like Thomas Jay Ryan, who was so riveting in Hal Hartley's "Henry Fool" in 1998, a film which coincidentally featured another actor who could've pulled this part off successfully, and who happens to have a small, but pivotal role in this film, Kevin Corrigan.
Corrigan, a terrific character actor and unsung veteran of a number of indy films, in this one plays Anthony "Banco" Banconi, a co-worker and friend of the McBeth's who significantly figures into the tragedy as it ultimately plays out. Corrigan has the talent and just the kind of charismatic screen presence the role of Joe called for, and it's too bad that Morrissette and casting director Avy Kaufman didn't recognize the possibility that was right in front of them.
They did strike gold, however, with the casting of Tierney as Pat McBeth. She has a naturally endearing screen presence and expressive eyes that can speak volumes, which she uses to great effect here. And, as she's demonstrated since becoming an integral member of the cast of TV's "ER," she plays extremely well to her "dark" side, which is precisely what the role of Pat called for. Needless to say, she does it quite well, turning in an altogether convincing and entirely believable performance.
Another actor who plays so well to his dark side, Christopher Walken, does a solid turn here as Lt. Ernie McDuff, the investigator probing the shady goings-on at Duncan's hamburger stand. In any role, Walken has a subtle, commanding presence, and this is no exception; here, though, he lends something of a light touch to the proceedings that is nevertheless in keeping with the seriousness of the story. Suffice to say, he does black comedy well. And, without question, it is Walken who "makes" the final shot of the film.
The supporting cast includes Tom Guiry (Malcolm Duncan), Andy Dick (The Hippie Jesse), Amy Smart (The Hippie Stacy), Timothy "Speed" Levitch (The Hippie Hector), Geoff Dunsworth (Donald Duncan), John Cariani (doing a hilarious turn as Ed the Cop), Nate Crawford (Robert/Richard) and Timothy Durkin (Frank the Pharmacist). It may not be especially memorable, but "Scotland, Pa." is just quirky enough to be a worthwhile entry in the Put-A-Spin-On-Shakespeare festival, currently playing on a DVD or video near you.