Writer/director Casey Wilder Mott’s souped-up version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an uneven pastiche of Willie-the-Shake. Set in contemporary Los Angeles (doubling for Greece), the characters are all involved in the film business. They speak in iambic pentameter, but it’s still more along the lines of Romeo + Juliet than RSC.
The plot is faithful to the play: Hermia (Rachel Leigh Cook), a movie star, is in love with Lysander (Hamish Linklater), but her father, Egeus (Alan Blumenfeld), wants her to marry Demetrius (Finn Wittrock). Demetrius is also being pursued (unwillingly) by Helena (Lily Rabe), who is Hermia’s best friend. Meanwhile, Bottom (Fran Kranz), a vain actor, is working on a screen version of Pyramus and Thisbe for Quince (Charity Wakefield), a filmmaker hoping to impress Theseus (Ted Levine), a studio mogul.
The romantic and professional aspirations of the characters are thwarted when Oberon (Saul Williams) asks Puck (Avan Jogia) to apply a magic potion to the eyelids of the lovers so as to redirect Demetrius’ passion for Hermia to Helena. However, that plan backfires. Likewise, Puck turns Bottom’s head into a literal ass, prompting Oberon’s beloved, Titania (Mia Doi Todd), to fall in love with him.
Ah, the course of true love never did run smooth, as Lysander has tattooed on his arm.
Yet Mott can’t help but show off how damn clever he is with in-jokes ad nauseum. “Athens” replaces the “Hollywood” sign and Verity substitutes for Variety as the industry trade publication. Mocked up movie posters from familiar films such as Dirty Dancing, Pretty Woman,and Pulp Fiction are redone with Hermia in the starring role. There’s even an ad for the “AFI” (Athens Film Institute) that proclaims, “Where all the world’s a stage,” not to mention a reference to a certain Kanye West video, and several nods to Star Wars.
But wait, there’s more. Mott has Bottom looking for Quince’s set by asking, “2B?” only to be answered with “Not 2B.” Theseus asks his dog to leave the room, decrying, “Out! Out!” then sighing, “Damn Spot!” when the dog remains. If these bits from other Shakespeare plays are amusing to viewers, they might be thrown in to confuse students hoping to see the film instead of reading the original source material.
But for folks “offended by these shadows” as Shakespeare wrote in the play (a line also used in the film), take heart that this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream does have some inspired bits. Oberon uses a creative animated segment to instruct Puck about the magic potion, and there are also some nifty musical sequences courtesy of Mia Doi Todd, who also serves as the film’s composer. In addition, the film’s costumes are quite snazzy.
The performances by the four leads, Cook, Linklater, Rabe, and Wittrock are uniformly commendable, and both Kranz and Williams are particularly enthusiastic in their supporting roles. However, as fun as it is to see Puck here is a surfer dude who gets stoned on purple haze trying to execute his mischief in the woods (Topanga State Park), Avan Jogia lacks the necessary brio to make his character stand out. And the film-within-a-film of Pyramus and Thisbe, (which mirrors the play’s play-within-a-play), becomes a one-joke bit that goes on way too long.
Ultimately, this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a real mixed bag.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens in Philly today.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.