Modern Shakespeare film adaptations are tricky. The tragedies tend to work better than the comedies, as the comedies usually hinge upon magic or stagey misunderstanding. The best ones – Richard III, Romeo + Juliet, Coriolanus – justify themselves through some storytelling masterstroke. They also have enough action to maintain visual interest, which the comedies do not. At times, director Casey Wilder Mott’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream falls into that trap. It is a pastiche of ideas, as if Mott and his producers assembled jokes on a dry erase board, and only went from there. What saves this adaptation is the goodwill involved, and that Mott’s cast never takes the material too seriously. They break some cardinal rules here, all in service of the show. It is the sort of creative latitude Shakespeare would admire.
Mott trims a lot of the dialogue and secondary characters, logging the essentials of the story in under two hours. His primary focus is on how Puck (Avan Jogia) messes with the two sets of lovers, as well as Bottom (Fran Kranz) and Titania (Mia Doi Todd). Before that, he defines the major players with a bunch of shrewdly-edited vignettes in modern Los Angeles. There are some cheeky jokes, like replacing the “Hollywood” sign with “Athens.” This version mostly envisions the characters as cogs in the entertainment industry: Demetrius (Finn Wittrock) is an entertainment lawyer, while Hermia (Rachael Leigh Cook) is an A-list actress. The fateful night, one where Puck fucks with everyone’s shit, unfolds like a bad trip to Burning Man.
Adapting this play so it reflects the anxiety, lifestyle, and whims of modern Los Angeles is a little self-serving, especially since the cast is filled with LA-based actors who rarely get leading roles. Once you get past that, however, the energy and goodwill helps keep the story moving. Some of them handle the material better than others, but Mott realizes that a trim adaptation needs folks who look the part more than sell it. Paz De La Huerta is not a great actor, for example, but she looks terrific as the sinewy Hippolyta. Saul Williams is known his work as musician, but he brings otherworldly charisma as manipulative Oberon. Many Shakespeare adaptations involve some stunt casting – lest we forget Bill Murray played Polonius – and this Midsummer traffics in the same sort of pleasures.
That appeal loses its luster once Puck is up to his old tricks. The trouble is that this stretch of comedy – lovers spurning and admiring each other in equal measure – does not have the visual inventiveness of film’s first third. The actors are also too restrained (more histrionics would help declarations of hatred/love veer into comic territory). Admittedly, this part also leads to the best visual gag in the movie, which I will not spoil for you. On top of being funny, said gag changes the dialogue in a way that makes the language seem funnier. Still, Mott mostly loses his grip on the material, and the actors have all the enthusiasm of a backyard production. The harshly red color palette only makes matters worse, since the ruddy light bulbs are unpleasant on the eyes.
The primary audience for any Shakespeare film are the Shakespeare nerds who read and performed the plays in their formative years. I imagine those folks will enjoy this Midsummer Night’s Dream. Some may balk at Mott’s indiscretions, like when he rejiggers a famous Hamlet line into a groan-inducing pun. This kitchen sink approach – trying and failing in equal measure – is a modest success, so everyone succeeds through sheer good will. Let me put it this way: have you ever composed a text message with the same attention to detail that Shakespeare once composed his famous soliloquies? Just kidding, I know the answer to that: of course you have. But you should see A Midsummer Night’s Dream if you’re not afraid to admit it, since these mortal fools do exactly that.