Billy Morrissette is like William Shakespeare, only supersized. In his first film, "Scotland, PA," writer/director Morrissette -- previously an actor relegated to bit parts in unremarkable pictures like "National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation" -- takes the basic elements of the Bard's masterpiece "Macbeth" and transplants them to a Pennsylvania town in the early 1970s. In Morrissette's vision, it isn't a literal kingdom but a burger kingdom that's at stake: Wresting ownership of a lucrative fast-food franchise means instant upward mobility to customer-service grunt Joe "Mac" McBeth (James LeGros, who pulled off a wicked Brad Pitt impression in "Living in Oblivion") and his conniving wife, Pat (Maura Tierney, a regular on television's ER and Morrissette's real-life spouse).
The film satirizes the let's-update-Will trend brought to a fever pitch by Tim Blake Nelson's "O," Baz Luhrmann's "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" and Michael Almereyda's "Hamlet" -- all of which Morrissette claims to admire. But there's a critical difference between those pictures and the immeasurable fun of "Scotland, PA," which, wisely, is told in modern language and retains only the bare bones of Shakespeare's tale. Deviating from the familiar plot whenever internal logic so demands, the movie is a splendid success on its own terms.
"I tried to stay away from making it a movie for Shakespeare geeks," Morrissette says. "Some people take [his work] so seriously, like they wrote it themselves." Since the movie's premiere at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, he confirms, reactions have ranged from outright enjoyment to anger.
"Like bin Laden anger," he clarifies.
To get mad at "Scotland, PA," you'll have to ignore that it's one of the funniest movies to come along in years. Mac is spurred on to dark deeds by the predictions of three fortune-telling hippies (Andy Dick, Amy Smart and Timothy "Speed" Levitch of "The Cruise") who live at a nearby amusement fair. With their cryptic prognostications dancing around in Mac's head, the McBeths clumsily dispatch their boss, Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn), and shanghai his miniempire to reap the benefits of such chow-industry innovations as the drive-up window and the chicken nugget. As Mac develops a taste for killing that's more habit-forming than any simple craving for onion rings, wife Pat is eaten alive by her own conscience. (She's convinced that a fry-grease stain incurred during the murder will not remove itself from her hand.) Eventually, the murderous goings-on attract the attention of a nosy but ingratiating detective named Lt. McDuff (Christopher Walken, in one of his most consistently hilarious oddball roles).
Morrissette hit on the story concept when he was a teen-ager working in a Dairy Queen and reading Shakespeare's play for the first time. The connection between the venerable tragedy and fast-food seemed obvious: Almost every character, he noticed, had "Mac" in his or her name. But the project lay dormant until about 20 years later, when, during a comparative lull in his acting career, Morrissette broached the idea to his friend, producer Richard Shepard ("Oxygen," "Mexico City"). Shepard signed on to produce and direct, though he later suggested that the writer himself should helm the picture. As filming got off to a shaky start, even Morrissette had to doubt the prudence of that arrangement.
"It was truly the end of the world," he reflects. "I have a very indecisive personality, which is -- guess what? -- the wrong personality to direct. I had to quickly change my entire mode into, Ã?No, I need this. You do this. I want it this way.'"
The totality of his metamorphosis is evident in the finished film. "Scotland, PA" abounds with its creator's genius grace notes, not the least of which is his decision to weight the film's musical soundtrack of '70s FM hits toward the riff-crazed operas of Bad Company. Swaggering numbers like "Can't Get Enough" (with its opening salvo of "Well, I take whatever I want") lend a roughneck ominousness to the film's scenes of violent self-advancement, though Morrissette's determination to use a full five of the band's tunes gave his music supervisor pause. Their exchange as he recalls it:
"There's other music out there!" "No, there isn't."
The soundtrack is audible proof of Morrissette's firm grasp of post-hippie detritus. ("I mainly used Camaro cars in [the movie], because it's all I remember [people driving]," he explains.) Yet there's more to "Scotland, PA" than its era-hopping giddiness, or even its comedic formidability in general. Surprisingly, what begins as a rib-poking gambol grows to rival its source material in terms of emotional power. There's genuine tragedy to the McBeths' moral downward spiral, and Tierney's complex portrayal of Pat saves the movie from inheriting any of "Macbeth"'s arguable misogyny. No garden-variety shrew, she's an ethically lapsed social climber who is visibly horrified when her husband's thirst for blood begins to outpace her own.
"It's her worst nightmare that she would no longer be in charge," Morrissette analyzes, but there's more than that going on in Tierney's knowing performance. Her fine acting, the writer/ director proudly agrees, may exceed even his own conception of the part.
"When I've seen the play, the problem is -- don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful play -- but the problem is, you want [the Macbeths] dead so quickly. You hate them."
Hate is not an emotion this film cares to engender. In his final and smartest move, Morrissette chooses to curtail and condense the blood bath that is Shakespeare's denouement. The departure makes the movie somewhat of a Valentine to the 20th century: In the hundreds of years between the Macbeths and the McBeths, it suggests, wholesale slaughter simply became harder to pull off. As the three hippies challenge Mac, "You can't go around killing everybody. Can you?"
Not in a film this high-spirited. Not in "Scotland, PA."