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With: Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, Stanley Tucci, Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Dominic West, Christian Bale, David Strathairn, Sophie Marceau, Roger Rees, Sam Rockwell, Gregory Jbara, Bill Irwin, Max Wright
Written by: Michael Hoffman, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Michael Hoffman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content
Running Time: 116
Date: 03/19/2013

William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Puck Everlasting

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

William Shakespeare is currently one of the hottest writers in Hollywood for several reasons, the most important of which is that he comes cheap (being in the public domain can do wonders for your career). He can also lend an air of respectability to an entire screenplay, or just a few lines of dialogue (Never Been Kissed), or a plot outline (10 Things I Hate About You). I wouldn't be surprised if some of the less intelligent movie moguls out there were pounding on their speaker phones barking, "get that Shakespeare guy in here!"

But the truth is that I like this trend. Lately artists have realized that they can really play around with Shakespeare's works. In fact, I think the plays lend themselves to it. Some stiff intellectuals believe that Shakespeare should only be performed solemnly and rigidly, and only by the English. But Shakespeare was too playful and inventive for that kind of treatment. I had a professor in college who argued that his works should not be performed at all -- only read -- so that we may appreciate them and interpret them for ourselves.

The case in point is the new movie by Michael Hoffman, William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. (I think we can leave the Bard's name out of the titles of all movies from now on, thank you very much.) It has fun and makes you laugh.

The cast includes Calista Flockhart (TV's "Ally McBeal") and Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda, In & Out), and they're both marvelous. Kline plays Bottom, the hammy actor role, and he puts his soul into it. Flockhart adapts her flustered TV persona into the lovelorn Helena and creates a comic identity all her own. Flockhart and Kline should be nominated for Oscars. The rest of the cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer, lovely as Titania; Rupert Everett, equally lovely as Oberon; Stanley Tucci as Puck (with the role pared down a little); Christian Bale, from Kenneth Branagh's muddy and brilliant Henry V, as Demetrius; David Strathairn, who was in town several years ago performing The Tempest at A.C.T., as Theseus; Sophie Marceau (from Michelangelo Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds) as Hippolyta; and the wonderful clown Bill Irwin and Sam Rockwell (Lawn Dogs) as part of Bottom's theatrical company of less-than-talented actors.

The plot has several characters wandering into the enchanted woods at night and falling prey to the magical hijinks of Oberon and Puck. Armed with a magic flower, Puck switches around everyone's affections, changes Bottom into a mule, and makes Titania fall in love with him. At about the three-quarter mark, Puck puts everything right. But in the great Shakespearean tradition, the movie doesn't end there. We must still sit through a wretchedly bad play-within-the-screenplay, led by Bottom. This play turns out to be the funniest bit yet, as the actors claw and wrestle their way through their dialogue and staging. Only then can we go home, but we go home happy.

Even if one is familiar with Shakespeare, it usually takes a little time after the production starts to become acclimated to the language. With A Midsummer Night's Dream, that problem did not last long at all. I was soon in the swing and enjoying the show. This movie is as much fun as Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, but it does not make the mistake of becoming serious about its romance story. Robert Graves once said: "The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good."

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