Ah well, at least Michael Almereyda's new adaptation is one of those really different takes on the venerable play. While the last two widely seen versions -- the 1990 Mel Gibson/Franco Zeffirelli film and the four-hour-plus 1996 Kenneth Branagh/Kenneth Branagh version -- were relatively straight adaptations, Almereyda has moved the story to contemporary New York City, with highrises and cell phones and fax machines and noisy rock clubs. What with Ethan Hawke in the lead, it's a good thing, too. Most Hamlets are conceived as vehicles for the star to strut his stuff. The notion of a Hawke vanity production of the play is too embarrassing to think about -- right up there with Ted "Love Boat Isaac" Lange's 1989 Othello. (Which, to be fair, this reviewer has never seen. Has anyone?) Indeed, Hawke seems to have very little stuff to strut here, but at least we have Almereyda's anachronisms to keep us amused.
Almereyda sets the scene with no dawdling, opening with the brightest, most garish possible night view of New York, the city looking something like Blade Runner's futuristic Los Angeles. A night watchman at the giant Denmark Corporation sees the ghost of the company's recently deceased president (Sam Shepard) wandering the hallways. Together with Horatio (Karl Geary), he passes the word to the president's son, Hamlet (Hawke), who is first brooding over his father's death and then brooding over his own brooding -- all recorded on his computer screen in low- resolution images.
Hamlet confronts the ghost, who informs him that he was murdered by his own brother, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan). Claudius has already commandeered both the corporation and the affections of the ghost's wife, Gertrude (Diane Venora). While Hamlet tries to figure out how to avenge his father, he also woos longtime sweetie Ophelia (Julia Stiles) -- a seemingly underaged, Nike-wearing waif whose father, Polonius (Bill Murray), is an executive with Denmark Corp.
Well, you know how most of the story traditionally goes, and you can readily predict most of Almereyda's updatings. Rosencrantz (Steve Zahn) and Guildenstern (Dechen Thurman) are a couple of Hamlet's old stoner buddies. Instead of staging a play to trap Claudius, Hamlet invites him to a screening of a video he's directed. He shoots Polonius rather than stabbing him.
Other mutations are less obvious. One of the soliloquies is replaced by a Buddhist lecture on TV. "To be or not to be" is more or less a throwaway line, as Hamlet strolls through a video store, surrounded by aisle signs inscribed "ACTION," while the distinctly sub-Hamlet revenge film Crow 2: City of Angels plays in the background.
All this fiddling around with the setting is cute, and it might work if Almereyda were playing it strictly for laughs. But for the most part, he's serious, and the result is likely to satisfy no one. This sort of revisionist updating of Shakespeare is nothing new: It surfaces whenever young directors look for a flashy way to restage overly familiar material (Orson Welles practically built his career on this stuff).
Of course, most Hamlets rise and fall largely on the performance of the star, and Hawke is simply not up to the task: He has neither the charisma nor the gravitas to pull it off, nor is he an accomplished enough actor. He comes across like a pale imitation of Tom Cruise, who would have been better in the part (if we could only forget that he's Tom Cruise).
Despite a few good performances -- most notably MacLachlan and Liev Schreiber as Laertes -- this Hamlet is not a keeper.