Hawke brings to the modern-Manhattanized role the cutting, incisive sensibility that allowed him to turn Dickens' subtle critique of the way class and wealth can pervert even the purest of romantic intentions, Great Expectations, into a hot post-teen sex romp, only with lots of brooding.
But of course, what does Hamlet do except brood? Shakespeare essentially invented the James Dean type with his play about a middle-aged prince with a teenage soul who can't decide whether or not to kill his stepfather. The Menendez trial showed that patricide is a tough choice for the modern arrested adolescent, so it must have been especially grueling for a 16th-century royal, as he lacked the guidance of (and hopes for later appearances on) the Oprah show.
Still, in a role that calls for an almost bottomless pathos, Hawke manages to go deeper than is necessary. One wonders at the difficulty Hawke's bathetic emoting must have presented for the less effusive actors in this new production. The cast is a mixed bag in this respect. The teen-death-rock-gloom-guitar-solo acting style of Hawke matches up pretty well with the teen-Sylvia-Plath-is-God-girlhood-is-pain stylings of Julia Stiles as Ophelia (whom she plays pretty much the way she's played all the roles in her illustrious career as star of second-string '90s teen sex comedies). Yet some of the more understated actors manage to walk away with the show while Hawke stares fixedly, but fervently, into the deep nothingness that surrounds and pervades him.
Liev Schreiber, as Laertes, is what the kids call "fucking fabulous." Schreiber is no stranger to performing Shakespeare on the stage, yet he seems acutely aware of the adjustments one must make when one is not shouting to the back rows in an outdoor venue, but rather whispering into the camera during an extreme close-up. While I hate to use the term "powerful" to describe a performance, since Joel Siegel and Gene Shalit have pretty much laid claim to all past and future uses of the term, I am in the position of not having a better word to describe Schreiber's ability to steal every scene he's in.
Schreiber's biggest competition (or perhaps complement) in this film is Bill Murray, who plays Polonius. Frankly, Murray was born to play this part, and Murray is the finest actor in the small niche of comic actors who play serious roles while still remaining comic actors and yet never camping up said serious roles. Which is to say, after seeing Murray in Hamlet and Rushmore, Robin Williams should just go out and club himself to death.
At every moment, Murray manages to deliver the force of a father at fear for his daughter's safety (for those who lost their Cliff's Notes, Polonius is the father of Ophelia, who is in love with the apparently mentally unstable Hamlet). Simultaneously, he gives the sense that at any second he could start squirting seltzer down his pants. It's a tense act, brother, and one that bears future watching.
Sadly, the film itself doesn't bear all that much watching, and not only because of the Ethan Hawke Effect. It has some clever ideas, like setting Hamlet in modern-day New York, and changing the Kingdom of Denmark into the Denmark Corporation. And Steve Zahn is freaking hilarious as Rosencrantz (Hamlet's college pal, who is enlisted in a conspiracy to kill him), reading his lines in perfect iambic pentameter and with a real feel for the meaning, but in the accent of a Midwestern trailer park-dwelling stoner.
Plus, Hamlet has a great screenplay. Scriptwriter Bill Shakespeare gets his 385th credit with this film (the most for anyone, and a record that will probably not be beat until well into the 45th century, when the cryogenically frozen head of Stephen King is reawakened for the sole purpose of making Children of the Corn LXVI.)
But otherwise, it's bad use of good material. The cinematography has an intentionally cheap feel that doesn't work well with the romantic tone of the piece, and the script is cut and rearranged to bad effect at times (like placing the great "I have of late..." speech in the beginning of the film, so that it loses its sense of context and its interlocutors). And watching Hamlet's videotaped diary sequences (Hawke's Hamlet is an amateur movie-maker) is about as dull as reading an actual diary.
Still...this is Hamlet. I mean, you can go only so far wrong with something that's this good at bottom, so it's not a complete waste of celluloid, largely because of the script and the strong secondary performances.
Which leads me to think that this could have been really great if nothing but the secondary performances were included. You know, a sort of Rosenkrantz and Polonius and Laertes are Dead, set in a magical universe where the play's the thing that Ethan Hawke isn't allowed anywhere near.