Moviemakers have dipped into Shakespeare since the days of silent film, but it's likely the producers of the new "A Midsummer Night's Dream" were chuckling with special glee when "Shakespeare in Love" became a hit. Hollywood had taken the Bard as its latest muse, industry-watchers announced, and "Dream" was neatly positioned to consolidate the trend.
Since the Oscar sweepstakes, the new Shakespeareanism has been tested by only one picture: the teen comedy "10 Things I Hate About You," which uses "The Taming of the Shrew" for story ideas. Skeptical observers have wondered if multiplex crowds would flock to an actual Shakespeare film, complete with iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets.
Michael Hoffman's adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" isn't exactly the real thing - it trims the original text, moves the action to turn-of-the-century Italy, and douses the soundtrack with opera music - but it's considerably closer than, say, the recent "Romeo + Juliet" that used a late Fedex delivery to touch off the tragic finale. It retains the basic plot about wandering lovers and amateur actors discombobulated by fairy tricks in an enchanted forest, and serves up some of Shakespeare's most popular verse along the way.
If the picture is often less spellbinding than it wants to be, it's partly Hoffman's fault for creating fantasy moods through traditional stage devices - lavish props, cute makeup, peek-a-boo costumes - that seem rather tame for this age of morphed-up visual surprises. Uneven acting is also a problem. Kevin Kline builds Bottom's character to perfection, then overplays his transformation scenes; David Strathairn is a dull Duke; and Stanley Tucci is an unspritely Puck teamed with Rupert Everett's uncharismatic Oberon.
The women of the cast fare better, and Oliver Stapleton's sparkling cinematography makes everything look appropriately gossamer.
But while open-minded Shakespeareans will enjoy it, the picture isn't likely to generate much momentum for the Bard's current bandwagon.
*Rated PG-13; contains brief nudity and sexual innuendo.