A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): A modern Shakespeare farce to enjoy

Although I have read lots of literature works during last 30 years, I somehow have not been that familiar with those great works of William Shakespeare. Sure, I did read the Korean translation version of “Hamlet” and some other notable classic tragedies of his when I was young, but I have not read yet many of his comedy plays except “Twelfth Night”, which has been so far the only Shakespeare play I ever read in English.

Because I only knew a bit about the basic synopsis of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, I was afraid of not being able to appreciate its latest movie version enough before watching it, but, to my relief, the movie turns out to be more enjoyable than I thought. While mostly faithful to its basic storyline, this small piece of work is constantly funny and humorous with some wry modern touches to be savored, and I found myself amused a lot by the game efforts from its cast and crew. Sure, it took some efforts for me to understand those poetic lines during my viewing, but they are delivered with style and spirit at least, and I came to understand more of why Shakespeare’s works have been steadily admired and cherished for around 500 years.

While the story is still set in Athens, the movie transfers its background to California at present, and the main amusement of its early part comes from how a number of elements in Shakespeare’s original play are modified through this modern setting. For example, Hollywood is presented as Athens as reflected by a brief shot showing the modified version of a certain famous spot in Hollywood, and Duke Theseus (Ted Levine) is a powerful movie business guy here in this film.

The story starts with Theseus being visited by his friend Egeus (Bruce Church), who really needs Theseus’ help due to a difficult personal matter. Egeus’ dear daughter Hermia (Rachael Leigh Cook), who is incidentally one of the biggest movie stars in the town, is supposed to marry Demetrius (Finn Wittrock), and Demetrius, who is a hot-shot movie business agent, really loves Hermia, but, alas, Hermia recently comes to fall in love with Lysander (Hamish Linklater), a famous photographer who is eager to marry Hermia as soon as possible even though Egeus is not going to permit their marriage as Hernia’s father. Theseus tries to resolve this problematic situation in a reasonably way, but nothing much is done despite his sincere efforts, and Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander still find themselves stuck in their triangle relationship as before.

Eventually, Hermia decides to elope along with Lysander, and she confides everything to her friend Helena (Lily Rabe), who has carried a torch for Demetrius but has not received any affectionate response from Demetrius yet. As a matter of fact, Demetrius does not like being pursued by Helena at all, and he rejects her again when they later meet each other again.

In the end, through a couple of expected narrative turns, these four young people find themselves wandering in a forest outside Athens, and they come to draw the attention of Oberon (Saul Williams), the king of fairies who has been recently estranged from his wife Titania (Mai Doi Todd) due to their mutual infidelity. He orders Puck (Avan Jogia) to execute a certain mischief on not only Titania but also Helena, Lysander, Hermia, and Demetrius, and Puck, who is presented here in this film as your average hippy surfer dude, gladly follows his master’s order, but then we get a typical case of mistaken identity, which has always been one of the most popular plot devices among comedy writers.

Meanwhile, there is another group coming into the forest. They are a bunch of students from Athens Film Institution (AFI), and they are going to do some rehearsal on their latest project, but then one of them, named Bottom (Fran Kranz), comes to have a very strange experience when Puck decides to do another mischief just for fun. I will not say more about the plot from this point, but I can tell you instead that, as things become more complicated along the plot, the movie steadily supplies small and big laughs as required. While its naughty variation on Bottom’s silly transformation by Puck will probably get the biggest laugh from you, what subsequently happens to Bottoms when he comes across Titania is also pretty hilarious to say the least, and the movie scores another nice laugh as decorating its final act with the familiar elements from a certain classic SF fantasy movie. In addition, director/adapter Casey Wilder Mott cheerfully imbues the screen with dreamy moods as the characters in the movie wander around the forest in confusion or panic, and the movie often gleefully wields its artificial aspects which are further emphasized during its neat closing scene.

The main cast members of the movie have lots of fun with their respective roles. While Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Finn Wittrock, and Rachael Leigh Cook are engaging as their characters wildly sway from one emotional state to another, Saul Williams, Mia Doi Todd, Fran Kranz, and Avan Jogia deliver their juicy moments with gusto, and Ted Levine, Paz De La Huerta, and Bruce Church are also effective as more serious characters in the movie.

While I was watching the film, my mind was taken back to Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (2012), which also brought a Shakespeare comedy to modern background with considerable delight and entertainment. While I cannot say which one is better at this point, I can tell you that both of them have each own charm and personality, and now I think I should watch both of them together someday after reading those two original plays of Shakespeare.

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