Setting Hamlet in modern times wasn't exactly a new idea, on the heels of Baz Luhrmann's MTV-ready Romeo+Juliet and such loose updates as 10 Things I Hate About You, which tried to inject literary hipness into bland teenage fare. But Michael Almereyda's film is quite different from these in both substance and style -- it's quiet and starkly fascinating, with none of Luhrmann's busy color blasts or Gen-X hooks, although it does star teen-friendly Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles. This 2000 version is a thoughtful re-imagining of Hamlet in a washed-out New York City run by corporate raiders instead of kings, in which iambic pentameter is spoken over cell phones, and information transferred via fax rather than messenger. What saves this setup from mere gimmick is that it gives viewers a vastly improved understanding of the issues at the heart of the play. As portrayed by Hawke, Hamlet is a shiftless trust fund baby with artsy ambitions, who thinks too much while sitting around his apartment or leaving on world travels that utterly bore him. Rarely is Hamlet's essence distilled in a way so familiar to modern audiences. Detractors might criticize the decision to stage the classic "To be or not to be" speech in a Blockbuster video store -- and truth be told, it is a rather cheeky comment on consumerism. But many of Almereyda's decisions are brilliant, such as having Steve Zahn's Rosencrantz act like a lethargic stoner, and giving the chorus lines to news anchors commenting on takeover rumors. It's clear that the actors, including a stand-out Bill Murray, relish the opportunity to work with the material. They bring credibility to the smart concept, making for a thoroughly engrossing film.
by Derek Armstrong review