Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead
Jake Hoffman, Devon Aoki, John Ventimiglia, Kris Lemche, Ralph Macchio
US theatrical: 16 Apr 2010
Of all the plays written by William Shakespeare, Hamlet seems to have the most unusual life of its own. Sure, seminal works like Romeo and Juliet and King Lear have led to their own unique interpretations and parallels (West Side Story, A Thousand Acres, respectively) but for some reason, the tale of the melancholy Danish prince and the court intrigue which precipitated his vengeful angst continue to fascinate and inspire. From classic lines and their best delivery (“To be…or not to be” being perhaps the most memorable) to goofball interpretations from such surreal sources as Gilligan’s Island (with its hilarious musical interpretation) and The Simpsons the Bard’s boy wonder continues to endure.
In 1966, celebrated British playwright Tom Stoppard took two minor characters from Act II and extrapolated out an entire backstory, creating the brilliant Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Now, nearly 40 years later, indie filmmaker Jordan Galland has used that work and his own fevered imagination as a means of reinventing his own unique take on Shakespeare. In the slyly titled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead, the multitalented artist wraps a weird play within a film conceit into the hilarious story of an unfocused loser (and unapologetic ladies man) forced to get off the couch in his father’s medical office and direct an unusual off-Broadway production. Turns out, the eccentric interpretation of Hamlet has been written by one Theo Horace, a real life vampire looking to hide his crimes behind the roar of the greasepaint.
For aforementioned slacker Julian Marsh, it’s a way to get his domineering dad off his back. It’s also a chance to impress (and hopefully win back) his ex-girlfriend Anna. Of course, our natty neckbiter has other ideas about the goal of his work. The mysterious Horace might not just be a creature of the night, but part of some surreal cosmic plot. The unhinged story he’s concocted, one that deals with the characters from Hamlet, blood drinking, The Holy Grail, and a four play “Shakespiracy”, may actually contain a kernel or two of truth. Even worse, he intends to draw Marsh, his best buddy Vince, and the various actors and ancillary participants into what is rapidly becoming a crackpot confederacy of secret societies, shady businessmen, and corpses.
If it sounds like the interlocking ideas in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead are hard to describe, you’d be right. This assembly of literary homages, manufactured mythos, geek speak comedy, and quirky character study stands out because it is so jam packed full on interesting concepts. From the use of vampires in a terrific, non-Twilight manner to the whole playwriting cabal, Galland give the audience more than enough to chew on. He then ups the ante by providing individuals we can identify with, relationships we can root for, set-ups that demand (and receive) pay-off, and more than enough laughs to put many a proposed big screen comedy to shame. In fact, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead is probably one of the best outsider satires ever.
It all comes down to the true test of humor - timing - and this film is loaded with it. From dialogue that zips by effortlessly, leaving the listener breathless, to narrative threads that bend and weave like expensive sports cars during a high speed chase, Galland consistently goes for broke and ends up winning the lottery. We enjoy every eccentric sequence: the homeless woman who may or may not hold a key to Horace’s true identity; the near-flawless calls back to Big Willy and his “Rotten in Denmark” masterwork; Julian’s attempts to re-woo Anna; the sudden appearance of The Karate Kid‘s Ralph Macchio as a hygiene product hawking goombah; the tweaks and twists in the standard Dracula/supernatural dynamic; and the bohemian NYC setting. If a movie could get by on ripe originality alone, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead would succeed in spades.
Luckily, Galland has more than enough help getting things right. His cast is excellent, from Jake Hoffman’s romantically mucked up Julian to John Ventimiglia’s nutty Nosferatu in waiting. It takes a special kind of actor to make such out-of-the-box bravado work, and the players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead are clearly up to the challenge. Certainly there are times when the quirk and outrageousness are taken to extremes, and one does wish that Galland had pared down his ambitions and tried not to do everything in one film. But as with most independent auteurs who realize this may be their one and only chance at getting their muse across to the masses, the outsized objectives are more than forgivable - especially when the final leap is this exciting and engaging.
For a mainstream audience currently obsessed with added dimension, R-rated gross outs, and all manner of stubborn scatology, the more genial if still weird world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead will definitely be too sharp to appreciate. Sure, the movie is manic, stupid, silly, inspired, insipid, droll, dopey, dreamy, inventive, arch, amiable, and more than a little in love with itself. But in a realm of cookie cutter comedies that seem purposefully bent on repeating the already tired successes of the recent past, Galland’s gall is welcome. If Shakespeare were alive today, he would definitely appreciate the unique perspective on his play. If Hamlet is the greatest tragedy in the history of theater, than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead is definitely one of the best spoofs of same. It’s also an exceptional entertainment on its own.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.