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'Scotland, Pa.'

'Scotland, Pa.' translates Bard classic to fast-food family

Friday, March 08, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The fruits of William Shakespeare's recent reign as Hollywood's hottest screenwriter include Othello as a basketball player ("O"), Richard III as a Nazi (the Ian McKellen version), a high-school "Taming of the Shrew" ("Ten Things I Hate About You"), a flamboyantly Gen X "Romeo and Juliet" (the Baz Luhrmann version), "Henry IV" as a tale about gay hustlers ("My Own Private Idaho").

'Scotland, PA.'

RATING: R for language, some nudity, drug content and brief violence.

STARRING: James LeGros, Maura Tierney, Christopher Walken.

DIRECTOR: Billy Morrissette.

WEB SITE: lot47.com/scotlandpa/


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Pushing the Bard's envelope even more -- and proving it to be as resilient as ever -- is "Scotland, Pa.," now at the Denis and Squirrel Hill theaters, which is perhaps most easily described as the trailer-trash version of "Macbeth," although that hardly does the movie justice.

Writer-director Billy Morrissette has been kicking the idea around for 20 years, since he was a teen-ager working in a fast-food restaurant who hated his boss. At the same time, he was reading "Macbeth" for the first time. Hmmm. Fast food. Characters whose names started with Mac. The murder of the head honcho.

And so we have this comic tale of Joe McBeth (James LeGros) and his wife, Pat (Maura Tierney), who work at Duncan's restaurant, circa 1975. Duncan (James Rebhorn) makes most of his money on doughnuts, it seems. But he's not ready for some of Joe's ideas, like little chicken pieces with dipping sauce. Duncan has thought of a drive-thru window, but Mac's got a better idea.

Unfortunately, Duncan is determined that his son, Malcolm (Tom Guiry), succeed him at the restaurant even though Malcolm, a teen-ager, hates the business, hates his father and just wants to rock 'n' roll. Mac, who is expecting a promotion to manager, is disappointed, but not as much as his missus.

She goads Mac on to bloody business, whereupon a police lieutenant named McDuff (Christopher Walken), who happens to be a vegetarian, tries to figure out whodunit. At one point he says to Mac, "I hope you're not going to kill me" -- with greasy fast food, of course, a target of the movie's satiric underpinnings.

The movie starts out like, well, a high-school kid's idea of parody. The caricatures and broad comic tone instill a fear that this will be a one-joke movie incapable of sustaining the humor.

But the first hint that Morrissette has a clue comes in the opening scene, introducing the three witches (here depicted as stoned-out hippies played by Andy Dick, Timothy "Speed" Levitch and Amy Smart). They are in an amusement park Ferris wheel. One of them tosses a chicken to the ground and utters the Bard's line about "Fair is foul, and foul fair." Get it? Amusement park (a fair)? Chicken (a fowl)? OK, so that's sophomoric, too, but it's cleverly sophomoric.

As the story proceeds, Morrissette plays fair with Shakespeare's tragedy as the weight of guilt descends upon the Macs and they descend into their own individual versions of madness. Tierney never allows Mrs. Mac to become a caricature in the first place -- she seems the one real adult in Scotland, Pa., and we can understand her impulse to be queen of this small pond even if we can't approve of her methods.

Walken gives us the other crucial performance, as the detective called in from outside to investigate the case. He has his idiosyncrasies -- it's Christopher Walken, for gosh sakes -- but he plays the one other person who understands the seriousness of the situation.

He and Tierney give the movie the weight required to make this a worthy, if whacked out, translation of the Scottish play. And if chicken nuggets be the fast food of love, why, just drive through.

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