Despite its star-sprinkled cast, director Michael Hoffman's modernized vision of Shakespeare's most popular romantic comedy falls short of its potential. Special effects are used inconsistently; a few magical moments with the movements of the fairies, the impish Puck (Stanley Tucci) showing up in a stein, and a tree trunk turning into a mirror are imaginative delights, but they are too few and easy to miss. A long way from the Bard's original backdrop of 16th century Greece, the late 19th century Italian setting is a refreshing angle, using lovely operatic interludes and comical use of bicycles to move the plot, yet the locale conflicts with the strict adherence to Elizabethan vernacular and various references to "Athens." The overly stagy settings make little use of sprawling Italian vistas or architecture; instead, most of the action takes place in a claustrophobic forest which feels like a school-play backdrop. Kevin Kline, who has the juiciest role (as a weaver and wannabe thespian-turned jackass), gives an engrossing and whimsical performance. Stanley Tucci and Calista Flockhart are also fun to watch, although Flockhart's Ally McBeal mannerisms do shine through when she gets histrionic about unrequited love. David Straithern, Christian Bale, and Rupert Everett are surprisingly bland while Michelle Pfeiffer is luminous as the Fairy Queen with the help of fantastic costume and makeup. Shakespeare is mostly a medium of lyrical prose and acting, and there are too many prosaic performances and missed opportunities for visual impact in this dreamy fantasy tale.
by Lisa Kropiewnicki review