HAMLET

Directed by Michael Almereyda

Adapted by Almereyda, from William Shakespeare's play

With Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora, Bill Murray, Julia Stiles, Liev Schreiber

Distributed by Miramax

***



As an idea, Michael Almereyda's so-hip-it-hurts HAMLET adaptation seems as dubious as the hip-hop musical version of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS currently being performed in New York.  No mere filmed theater or illustrated screenplay this HAMLET. Instead, it's organized around   a collection of au courant themes: a dysfunctional family, Gen. X angst, media overload, the dominance of corporate capitalism. While this postmodernist take on classical sources recalls his 1994 vampire film NADJA,  HAMLET finds a more successful balance between influences from the past and present. Along with David Fincher, Almereyda is one of the few American narrative filmmakers of his generation to show much of an avant-garde influence - in fact, his Hamlet is an avant-garde filmmaker, whose found-footage "film/video" incorporates work by animator Lewis Klahr - but he's also enough of an old-school cinephile to work under a pseudonym lifted from Jean Vigo's father. The synthesis of HAMLET is partially sabotaged by a handful of weak performances, but it revives the promise shown by Almereyda's first two films, TWISTER and the blown-up Pixelvision extravaganza ANOTHER GIRL, ANOTHER PLANET.

Those films suggested  a kindred spirit to Hal Hartley, but Almereyda changed course by delving into genre with NADJA. Half the time, he played its material for camp humor, while striving for genuine chills elsewhere, but it only added up to a  lack of control over its tone. Despite a few moments of great beauty, that film's smirky streak wrecked it. The director followed NADJA with another genre foray, THE ETERNAL, which suffered the humiliation of coming out straight to video. Reportedly unhappy with studio tinkering, Almereyda requested that it be omitted from a recent retrospective of his work.

In HAMLET, Denmark is a corporation, rather than a nation, and Elsinore  a Times Square hotel. Royalty equals corporate power, and
after murdering Hamlet's father, Claudius (MacLachlan) woos his wife Gertrude (Venora) and  takes a place in Denmark's corporate headquarters, while USA TODAY trumpets his victory over rival Fortinbras. Called back from school to attend his father's funeral, Hamlet (Hawke) decides to stick around.
Unfortunately, Hawke is too lightweight an actor to carry the film. A slacker icon since his role in REALITY BITES, he plays Hamlet as though he were auditioning for a Kurt Cobain bio-pic, complete with a perpetual quarter-goatee of stubble. (Almereyda's use of James Dean clips doesn't make him look any better, either.) Similarly, Julia Stiles also seems too callow for the role of Ophelia. These characters' dilemma should feel excruciating, but they look like simple cases of post-adolescent depression. However, the supporting cast brings the film out of high-concept hell. Bill Murray brings a welcome playfulness to the part of Polonius, while MacLachlan manages to give Hawke a lesson in real intense brooding.

The main strength of NADJA lay in its evocative use of night-time East Village locations (aided by the music of Portishead and My Bloody Valentine), and Almereyda and cinematographer John de Boorman get a real grandeur here out of midtown Manhattan's sterile jungle of steel and glass. (New Yorkers will be amused to hear  the ever-annoying Mr. Moviefone in the background of one scene.) The stylized framing is complemented by the presence of a flickering TV set or computer in most scenes. Hamlet  immerses himself in a world of images, struggling to find his own voice by manipulating them - not to mention deciding whether to be or not to be while standing in the "Action" section of Blockbuster Video - and Ophelia, whose  loft is filled with her photographs, attempts to do much the same.  While he often seems to be completely overwhelmed by electronic media, he's savvy enough about it to use film to let  Claudius know that he's aware of his guilt.  Given Godfrey Cheshire's ongoing theorizing about the eclipse of cinema at the hands of video technology, it's no surprise that he loved HAMLET and interprets the ghost of Hamlet's father (Sam Shepard, who makes the most out of a handful of appearances) as the ghost of film.

Although Almereyda has cut about half the text, his HAMLET is still a torrent of words, yet images tend to overpower them. Although Shakespeare's dialogue often sounds incongruous in this contemporary setting, the director rarely plays this incongruity for laughs. Like Chris Marker and Wong Kar-wai, he views video as a portable memory bank, a notion addressed most overtly in  the barrage of flashbacks that precede newscaster Robert MacNeil's on-air eulogy for Hamlet. The film itself attempts to reconcile memory with a commitment to the present, and in doing so, it finds a very contemporary story at Shakespeare's core:  a young man's struggle to find his way in a world where love and trust get sabotaged by money and power. Despite  all its fashionable posturing, HAMLET avoids overdosing on irony a la NADJA, staying true to its source while building something new on top of it.