by D. Patrick Seitz
Quirky, mirky, funny, and off-beat.
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As I recall, the conversation went a little something like this:
Friend: “What do you want to see?”
Me: “I dunno. How’s about Black Hawk Down?”
Friend: “Hmmm…too much of a downer this evening. Let’s see Scotland, PA instead.”
Me: “What’s it about?”
Friend: “According to the paper, it’s a remake of “Macbeth’ set in the 1970s.”
Although I consented to seeing Scotland, PA, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I entered the theater with a fanny pack o’ misgivings strapped around my objectivity. I like Shakespeare, to be sure, but my last go-around with an updated version of his work was the dreadfully sterile Hamlet a few years back with Ethan Hawke and Kyle McLaughlin. There was enough existential ennui among the lead characters to send Sartre running for cover. I was also dreading a situation in which a retro-happy director crammed the plot full of unnecessary 19070s kitsch.
As it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried.
Scotland, PA centers around the stagnant lives of Joe “Mac” McBeth (James LeGros) and Pat McBeth, a husband-and-wife team of fast-food thralls whose careers seem to have petered out far beneath their ambitions. When Mac alerts Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn), the restaurant’s owner, about the manager’s thievery from the cash register, he’s rewarded with a mere pittance of a promotion, replacing the axed manager instead with his apathetic teenage son. Duncan then plans on making a mint with the drive-thru idea Mac unwittingly volunteers, and Pat decides that it’s time to serve up a super-sized order of Machiavellian justice. Before you can say, “Out, damned spot,” Duncan’s in the fry bin.
The McBeths purchase the restaurant from Duncan’s distraught sons and revamp it with a new look and surname not at all unlike a certain fast-food corporation of which you may have heard. From that point on, Scotland, PA takes us through the expected trials and tribulations of an upwardly mobile couple who have to enforce an ever-widening circle o’ homicide among their friends and acquaintances to keep their dirty laundry out of sight.
In a movie like this, where the average viewer knows full well what’s going to happen with regards to major plot twists, good acting is of the utmost importance to keeping the audience engaged. Thankfully, Scotland, PA delivers. James LeGros presents Mac McBeth as a simple guy, prominent of brow and bushy of coif, who’s been so whupped by his wife as to follow along with her schemes for a few quick kisses and that “come hither” look.
Maura Tierney turns in a cunningly manipulative performance as Pat McBeth, the conniving wife anybody who stayed awake through English class undoubtedly loved to hate. Tierney also just so happens to be Mrs. Billy Morrissette. Now, I’m usually of the opinion that movies need wives of the director and/or writer to star in them like Backstage West needs another audition notice for a indie film about six spunky multi-ethnic female vampire hunters (secret agents, sorority sisters, police recruits, Wiccans) who all get tastefully naked for the camera and have themselves merry ol’ adventures, but in this case, I’m willing to bite my tongue. It was Morrissette’s first foray in the world of writing and directing, so it’s not as if he was going to have the huge name actresses beating down his door. Besides, Tierney does a bang-up job of it. She’s ruthless, but not such a cast-iron bitch that you can’t still feel bad for her when the stress of keeping ahead of all the lies starts to eat away at her sanity.
Christopher Walken steals the show as Lt. Ernie McDuff, the local fuzz whose naivete rides a delicious edge of ambiguity, leaving viewers wondering if he’s really that trusting or if it’s all a ruse put forward for the McBeths’ benefit. Fear not, Walken purists: he does dance a bit in this film—and with maracas, no less!
Kevin Corrigan also deserves a special mention for his portrayal of Anthony “Banco” Banconi, the McBeths’ friend and coworker who manages every so often to lob a remarkably astute insight through his usual blank-faced stare, leaving Mac and Pat uneasy as to what all he knows.
All in all, Scotland, PA is a fun movie to rent with half a dozen of your favorite literature nerds—a great choice for that Shakespeare modernization marathon, right after Julie Taymore’s “Titus,” when you’ve all curled up into frightened balls and sworn off meat pies for good.
D. Patrick Seitz is moving on to easier pursuits than making his English students read Hamlet, such as scrubbing the 405 Freeway with a toothbrush.
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