- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

''Scotland, Pa.," exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle, runs a distant but diverting second to the 1999 "Hamlet" at the sport of updating Shakespearean classics in whimsical and potentially revealing ways.
"Macbeth" is the distant prototype of the new film, which purports to transplant the crimes of treachery and murder committed by the Scottish warrior and his impatient spouse to a town in rural Pennsylvania in 1972.
James LeGros and Maura Tierney are cast as the shame of apocryphal Scotland, conjugal culprits named Joe and Pat McBeth Joe being familiarly known by his nickname, Mac.
Mac and Pat simmer with discontent and envy while employed as a short-order cook and waitress at Duncan's, a diner owned by a frustrated visionary and unloved partriarch named Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn), who supposedly nurtures dreams of improvement and expansion that anticipate the emergence of McDonald's.
Because McDonald's began a decade or so before the McBeths get conspiring, writer-director Billy Morrissette can be detected cheating his anachronisms at a pretty short range. It's much easier to justify his trifling when it permits generous room for character disintegration to the formidable Miss Tierney, who happens to be the filmmaker's wife. Because she contributes a peerless cult performance as the malicious and then haunted Pat, the movie's best inside joke is the Morrissette collaboration.
Hollywood film directors have tended to cast Miss Tierney as shrinking violets or second female leads (in "Primal Fear," "Liar Liar," "Primary Colors," "Instinct"). Even her recent prominence in the cast of "E.R." reflects an emphasis on long-suffering pathos. So it's kind of entertaining to see that Mr. Morrissette regards his wife as a plausible troublemaker and underrated farceur, especially with macabre elements.
Pat McBeth goads her decidedly slow-witted husband (Mr. LeGros even seems to affect a Neanderthal look around the lower mouth) into wresting the diner from its founder and natural heirs, a pair of estranged sons, Malcolm (Tom Guiry) and Donald (Geoff Dunsworth) with no interest in the restaurant trade.
An amusing subplot observes Donald's show-business predilections, concentrated on a school production of "Godspell." The murder of Duncan occurs over a boiling vat of cooking oil, and the splatters leave Pat with nagging burn spots rather than blood traces. The most inventive and morbidly amusing illustrative details in the movie concern this Lady McBeth's obsessive efforts to cool her overheated telltale arm.
The avenger McDuff becomes a suspicious police detective named Ernie McDuff, played by Christopher Walken, a more savory choice than the material ultimately puts to adequate advantage. One of the throwaway jokes is that McDuff is also a vegetarian, leery of the motives of anyone who seems to harbor grandiose plans for such foodstuffs as burgers, fries and shakes.
A pivotal showdown scene between sleuth and suspects at the McBeth home fizzles in an untimely way. Mr. Morrissette also has failed to cook up an adequate fast-food equivalent for the spectacle of Birnam Wood advancing on Dunsinane Castle. The closest he gets is to garb the "Scotland, Pa." variation on the three witches, a trio of malicious hippies who appear to Mac in an abandoned amusement park, in a set of deer costumes. Not bad in its way but difficult to mistake for spectacle or showstopper.
A showdown is staged on the roof of the sparkling new McBeth's that goes up on the site of the outmoded Duncan's. The niftiest wrinkle at this point is activating McDuff's deputy, Ed the Cop, played by John Cariani. Ed is Barney Fife to Ernie's Sheriff Andy Taylor. The fact that Ed actually knows his limitations saves a dodgy situation for the lawmen.
"Scotland, Pa." does not require any command of a Shakespearean idiom from the cast members. It also requires no particular familiarity with the source material from moviegoers, but I think several jests are bound to be more satisfying if you recognize their origin. Meanwhile, any hopes for something more faithful and gripping in the way of a new movie version of "Macbeth" can await Kenneth Branagh's pending remake.
Whoever plays Lady Macbeth may encounter a bit of a stumbling block if Miss Tierney's Pat remains a cult favorite for the next generation or so but no one is promised clear sailing with that Shakespeare franchise.

**
TITLE: "Scotland, Pa."
RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Billy Morrissette. Loosely based on William Shakespeare's "Macbeth."
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes


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