A hamfisted attempt to inject “relevance” into one of Shakespeare’s more unfashionable plays, Michael Almereyda’s “Cymbeline” works best as a cautionary tale concerning the dangers of of believing that everything written by The Bard is “timeless.” Laboring under the misconception that the problem with the play as written was the singular lack of Apple products, (“Prithee, hie and away to an iPhone that we may snapchat till the morrow, good sir”) and not the awkward, coincidence-laden plot nor the jawdroppingly regressive gender politics, both of which remain mystifyingly intact, Almereyda makes only the most cosmetic of changes. Language (admittedly streamlined), storyline, character and even place names remain, only the clothes, cars and gadgets differ. Still, a lot of name actors get to thesp about with “thous” and “wherefores,” and some even do it rather well.
In the most successful attempts at this sort of modernization, which include Ian McKellan’s “Richard III,” Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet,” Joss Whedon’s“Much Ado About Nothing” and arguably Ralph Fiennes’ “Coriolanus” (though probably not Almereyda’s own “Hamlet” starring Ethan Hawke), there is a sense of the endeavor as a two-way street: Shakespeare’s work illuminates the present just as the new setting refreshes his words for a new audience. But nothing like that happens with “Cymbeline,” which would have us believe that we’re both living in Obama’s America (he appears pointedly on a TV screen) and somehow subject to sociocultural standards by which ordering the murder of your wife on the basis of hearsay regarding her infidelity from a glancing acquaintance is perfectly reasonable. Even more bizarrely, Almereyda has opted to make Cymbeline, aka The King, an Uzi-toting 21st Century drug lord who is also the leader of what seems to be a 1950s biker gang, right down to the leather jackets (not a look that Ed Harris can really pull off).
They are the “Britons,” while for some reason the Rome of the play is paralleled with the town of Rome’s police department. Cymbeline’s second wife, a vampish viper played purringly by Milla Jovovich, has an agenda too: she hates her husband’s pretty daughter Imogen (Dakota Johnson, pretty decent) for refusing to marry her son Cloten (a scowly Anton Yelchin) and instead secretly marrying the hunky but unfortunately named Posthumus (the hunky but unfortunately named Penn Badgley). Cymbeline banishes Posthumus, who after a quick snog and a few heartfelt promises, is torn from Imogen’s side and promptly enters into a bet with the deeply untrustworthy Iachimo (Ethan Hawke) that he cannot seduce his lovely wife. Because that’s what people who passionately and devotedly love and respect their wives do.
Through trickery, Iachimo convinces Posthumus that Imogene’s virtue has indeed been compromised, and so Posthumus, obviously, commissions Pisanio (John Leguiziamo) to murder her. But Pisanio only pretends to, and sends Imogene away dressed as a boy (in this Obama’s America, no girl would have short brown hair, so it’s a foolproof disguise) only for her to happen upon an ex-friend of her father’s (a terrific Delroy Lindo) who was wrongly banished and somehow ended up raising two of Cymbeline’s sons as his own. Phew.
And if you think that’s messy, just stick around until the final scene where there’s a shootout, a body set on fire, the revelation of the two boys’ paternity, a confession of his ill deeds by Iachimo, and a screamingly funny moment in which Posthumus, startled by the wife he believes he murdered embracing him from behind, elbows her full in the face.
The eager, stacked cast (Kevin Corrigan and Bill Pullman also get one scene each) just can’t make up for how ill thought through this “update” is. Rather than suggest any overarching reason why this archaic story is unfolding today, in New Jersey, Almereyda seems delighted with the cleverness of some amazingly literal insertions of current tech and costuming. So when the adapted line “this is the history of my knowledge touching her flight” is uttered, the character is looking at Imogen’s internet search history. And when Imogen is dressed as a boy and is asked her name, she has to think quickly and says “Fidel” in response to a stencil T-shirt she’s looking at. Problem is, it’s a picture of Che Guevara. And when Imogen has to find out where a certain town is located, we get a lovely shot of her laptop screen with Google Maps open. Not only is all of this rather ugly (Tim Orr’s cinematography has a much better showcase in Venice with “Manglehorn”) it also feels instantly dated. And it creates more problems than it solves, in that you can’t help but spend half the time wondering why no one uses any of the myriad communication devices to talk to one another and sort it all out?
Maybe tilting at the windmill of this notoriously difficult play is a noble endeavor, and the idea that by setting it in the present might attract an “OMG ShakesPR is gr8 LOL” crowd has some potential. But this “Cymbeline” has been teleported in from the past with all its fundamental problems unaddressed, and in about five minutes’ time, as soon as Google does a redesign or the next gen iPhone comes out, it’s going to look as as creakily anachronistic as Ed Harris’ tragic leather jacket. [D+]