Scotland, PA (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In high school, teachers spend a great deal of time guiding students through the rigors of Shakespeare's tragedies and histories, but what about the comedies? Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth... Yes, I said Macbeth - at least as envisioned by writer/director Billy Morrissette, whose low-budget, independent effort, Scotland, PA, depicts the story of the bloodthirsty Scottish lord in an entirely different light.

Morrissette has taken the premise behind Macbeth and shifted it several centuries, to the 1970s. Unlike Michael Almereyda's recent Hamlet, which was set in contemporary times, Morrissette does not rely on Shakespeare's dialogue (although some of the play's most famous lines can be heard in the background, often coming out of a radio), but anyone remotely familiar with the play will recognize the similarities. Morrissette hasn't even bothered to change the names (well, at least not much). What he has done is played with tone and intent, resulting in a motion picture that is undeniably Macbeth and unquestionably a comedy.

The themes and ideas underlying the play - revenge, manipulation, guilt, and fate - remain in place, but the changes result in additional layers. Morrissette's approach allows him to broadly satirize fast-food, suburbia, and, most obviously, the 70s. And, by beginning the film with a clip from the TV series "McCloud", he is able to make in interesting point about how the difference between tragedy and comedy is often one of context and how the material is viewed by the audience. When TV watchers saw this scene from "McCloud" on television three decades ago, it was a serious moment. As presented at the beginning of Scotland, PA, it comes across as hilarious. The image has not changed, but the context has. Such is the case with Morrissette's interpretation of Macbeth.

Joe and Pat McBeth (James LeGros and Maura Tierney) are workers at Duncan's hamburger joint in the tiny town of Scotland, PA. Tired of taking orders and getting no recognition for their valuable contributions, Joe and Pat decide to take action. Prodded by the musings of three hippies (Andy Dick, Speed Levitch, and Amy Smart), they plot the death of their boss, Duncan (James Rebhorn). The crime is committed, and it looks like the McBeths have gotten away with it, until police lieutenant Ernie McDuff (Christopher Walken) starts investigating. That puts him and Joe on a collision course.

Scotland, PA is peppered with witty dialogue and inventive moments. Early in the film, there is a scene in which Joe throws two troublemakers out of the restaurant. Morrissette films this like high drama, in slow motion with a soaring melodramatic score. The result is very funny. We learn that Duncan made his fortune by selling a chain of donut stores. And we're treated to lines like (from Pat McBeth), "We're not bad people - we're just underachievers that have to make up for lost time."

The casting is interesting. Maura Tierney, the "ER" star, is energetic and effective as Pat McBeth (she has a more meaty role here than Lady Macbeth had in Shakespeare's version, but her fate, and the damn spot, are the same). James LeGros plays Joe as if he's constantly drunk or stoned. Expectedly, the scene stealer is Christopher Walken, who plays McDuff in a manner that recalls Kyle Maclachlan's Agent Cooper from "Twin Peaks". (In fact, there's something very "Twin Peaks"-ish about Scotland, PA.)

Macbeth is not one of Shakespeare's most frequently filmed plays, and, with funding having evaporated for Kenneth Branagh's proposed adaptation, Scotland, PA has become the only recent version around. Granted, the movie won't help kids looking for essay answers for their English class, but, for those who don't take their Shakespeare too seriously, Scotland, PA is a lot of fun. Who would have imagined that one of 2002's funniest motion pictures has its roots in one of the Bard's bloodiest plays?

Scotland, PA (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1