The opening caption of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead’ assures us that “Since the 1600s there have been numerous versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet adapted to portray vampires. This is one of them” and for a few moments, it looks like the movie may be up to the impossible task of being as good as its title.
The movie itself is haunted by the better, or at least more focussed, movies the title conjures up. It does itself no favours by presenting itself as the fourth in an epic sequence begun by Hamlet, continued by WS Gilbert and most recently picked up by Tom Stoppard. That does invite comparisons. It’s also a vampire movie. It’s hard to watch a vampire movie without thinking about the other vampire movies out there.Vampires are tragic, noble, fallen figures, victims of circumstance while also being figures of great power. Hamlet is. There ought to be something there to work with – either seriously or comically … for that matter, why not both – but the movie barely touches it.
The idea that all three of the earlier plays contain a sort of Da Vinci Code exposing a secret war involving vampires and the Holy Grail that’s been raging for centuries is a funny one. It’s a shame it’s relegated to a subplot, particularly as Geneva Carr, whose character Charlotte drives that story thread along, is the best thing in the movie by a mile, capable of playing the funniest lines and wearing some of the silliest costumes perfectly straight. She’s wonderful, and if she was only in it a little more, she’d be the proverbial justification for the ticket price.
So much for the movie it isn’t … what’s the movie they did make like?
The main plot is a surprisingly shapeless story about a slacker theatre director, Julian (played by Jake Hoffman, Dustin’s son), who ends up directing a version of the Hamlet story with an all-vampire cast. He’s trying to win back his ex, and as she’s played by Devon Aoki, you can see why he might want to do that. Except the script gives no sort of structure to the relationship, and seems to get bored with the plotline. Given that the plotline is ’she’s dating someone with money now, but he’s a douchebag’, you can see why, but, again, she’s an actress playing Ophelia. Could we not have some sort of parallel or contrast between the actress and the part she’s playing? We have a play within a play structure, but the play doesn’t actually comment on the players. It doesn’t impose a structure, it just muddles things.
There are half a dozen or so supporting roles, each of which barely gives the actor more than a single eccentricity or manner of speech to go on. None of them feel like people, and in a movie about Hamlet and vampires, having a Sikh hypochondriac who does little more than stand there, say, only ever feels like a distraction.
The movie has, and this is a compliment even though it sounds a little backhanded these days, an early Kevin Smith vibe to it. But movies like Clerks or Chasing Amy had a real sense of being personal, a sense of brio, a sort of fearlessness and fun. The coarseness and pop culture references grounded some of the more eccentric performances and idiosyncratic ideas, and certainly made up for the low budgets. This movie is a thinking person’s Kevin Smith movie, but people don’t go to Kevin Smith movies to think.
So what is ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead’? It’s a movie that practically begs you to compare it to things that are a lot better. It’s a movie best described in terms of what it isn’t, not what it is. It’s certainly not so bad it’s good. It’s a movie that’s not quite funny enough to be a comedy, not horrifying enough to be a horror, emotionally engaged enough to be a romance, clever enough to score jokes from any of its various sources, meta enough to appeal to English students or, ultimately, goofy enough to get away with it.