Too fast, too loud, and too sexy by half, most film adaptations of Shakespeare seem so intent on proving the Bard is user-friendly to a Hollywood audience that the meat and the matter are lost under polish and bluster.
Baz Luhrmann's audacious Romeo + Juliet, for one, was just so hip, so totally rock-and-roll, it collapsed under its own cacophonous style.
So it was with relief that many critics greeted the news that Michael Almereyda planned to return to Shakespeare 15 years after releasing his controversial Hamlet, an uneven, if ingenious, modernization of the masterpiece starring Ethan Hawke as the melancholy Dane.
Almereyda is familiar with bombast. Yet, even though his Hamlet had a neon-splashed, ultrahip, slick look, it delivered a sedate, intelligent reading of the play. It even managed to present one of the few truly compelling, logical interpretations of that play's most abstruse character, Ophelia (Julia Stiles).
Almereyda goes for broke this time with Cymbeline, an adaptation of one of Shakespeare's lesser-known, lesser-produced, lesser-read - lesser in all regards - plays. The Bard's take on the ancient Celtic king is a tortuously complicated tragicomic romance that reiterates many of the tropes of Romeo and Juliet, but without any of its vitality.
Though it features several terrific performances by an ensemble cast that includes Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo, James Ransone, Bill Pullman, and Delroy Lindo, Almereyda's film version does little to save this confused piece.
Worse, his attempt to update the story for contemporary audiences by setting it in the world of bikers is unconvincing and downright silly.
Ed Harris is eminently watchable as King Cymbeline, the leader of an outlaw biker gang whose wisdom and strength have allowed the club to maintain an uneasy truce with the local cops.
He is enraged when his daughter, Imogen (Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith's daughter, Dakota Johnson), ignores rules of social decorum and marries one of the King's lackeys, Posthumus (Penn Badgley). Choleric, beside himself with worry, Cymbeline opens himself up to the manipulative machinations of his second wife (a lusciously evil Milla Jovovich), who persuades him to abandon the truce and unleash bloody war.
Subplots abound in Cymbeline, including an evil ploy by Posthumus' snake of a pal, Iachimo (Ethan Hawke), to trick the virtuous young man into murdering Imogen.
If too many filmmakers try to amp up the excitement in Shakespeare with movie magic, Almereyda goes to the opposite extreme in Cymbeline.
One of the most uncinematic pieces crafted by an otherwise fine stylist, Cymbeline befuddles with its ineffective blocking and lack of art direction.
Worse, Almereyda has his cast members deliver their lines with such dreadful restraint they appear to be sleepwalking. The utter lack of energy, passion, or movement in the opening 10 minutes will lead many a viewer to wonder, "Why should I continue to watch?"
Cymbeline ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Michael Almereyda.
With Ed Harris, Ethan Hawke,
Dakota Johnson, Milla Jovovich,
John Leguizamo, Penn Badgley, Delroy Lindo. Distributed by Grindstone Entertainment Group.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.