[Screen It]

(2000) (Alessandro Nivola, Alicia Silverstone) (PG)

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Musical/Romantic Comedy: A King and his three friends find their several-year quest of abstaining from romance challenged when they fall for a visiting Princess and her attendants.
It's 1939 and the King of Navarre (ALESSANDRO NIVOLA) has returned from military maneuvers with an audacious plan for himself and his friends, Berowne (KENNETH BRANAGH), Longaville (MATTHEW LILLARD) and Dumaine (ADRIAN LESTER). The King wants them to devote themselves to a three year program of self-improvement that involves studying, fasting, little sleep and even less - in fact, no - romance.

As such, no women will be allowed in the court save for Holofernia (GERALDINE McEWAN), the King's principal tutor who, with the aid of Sir Nathaniel (RICHARD BRIERS), tries to improve the men's minds and spirits respectively. That plan runs into a serious complication, however, upon the arrival of the Princess of France (ALICIA SILVERSTONE) and her attendants, Rosaline (NATASCHA McELHONE), Maria (CARMEN EJOGO) and Katherine (EMILY MORTIMER).

Having heard of the King's decree, the Princess sends her assistant, Boyet (RICHARD CLIFFORD), to check on its validity, but the King and his friends are preoccupied with another development. A Spanish nobleman, Don Armado (TIMOTHY SPALL), has arrived in town and fallen for the voluptuous Jaquenetta (STEFANIA ROCCA) who was spotted with the court's vaudevillian clown, Costard (NATHAN LANE), thus defying the King's order.

Things become even more complicated when the four men and women finally meet and sparks immediately fly between the four potential couples. As the King and his men try to maintain their no-romance pledge, they must contend with incorrectly delivered love letters and other comic mishaps, the effort of trying to hide their feelings toward the women, and even the outbreak of WWII.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
With all of the relatively recent and unique cinematic staging of several of Shakespeare's works, one would get the impression that the English playwright was being filtered through Chubby Checker. That's because the recent "twists" on the Bard's work have included Baz Luhrmann's contemporary and MTV-style version of "Romeo and Juliet," Julie Taymor's extravagant and time-bending take on "Titus Andronicus," and Michael Almereyda's contemporary restaging and redesign of "Hamlet."

None of those, however, are as unique or as fun as what Kenneth Branagh has done with his version of "Love's Labour's Lost." A renowned Shakespearean actor and director ("Hamlet," "Henry V") and obvious fan of the master's work, Branagh has turned one of the Bard's lesser known plays into a romantic musical comedy - but his twist includes the 1930s musical style of George Gershwin and Cole Porter rather than Mr. Checker - and the result is one of the most delightful -- albeit goofy -- and entertaining films of the year.

Unlike 1961's West Side Story" that took the "Romeo and Juliet" plot, modernized it (to match the time of its release) and included a great collection of original songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, Branagh has set this play in the pre-WWII days of the late 1930s. He's also cleverly taken a series of old show tunes from that era and creatively placed and interspersed them within the context of the play.

Most musicals naturally use such included musical numbers to further their plots and allow their characters to express their feelings in a more flamboyant fashion by suddenly breaking into song and dance. The same holds true here and Branagh has replaced certain scenic elements and dialogue with such songs that seamlessly segue in and out of Shakespeare's original dialogue that otherwise remains intact.

In fact, such numbers fit in so well that this new adaptation feels like a natural whole, as if the vintage musical numbers and the Bard's plot and verse were originally meant to be viewed and heard as one. The singing and dancing - both of which are performed by the cast without the aid of stand-ins or voice-overs - is quite good (at least to these untrained ears and eyes), as is the staging and choreography of the musical numbers.

While Shakespeare's original comedic play might not be as well-known as "Much Ado About Nothing" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" - that deal, in their own ways, with the same basic theme - it is one of his more accessible works. That's not just because it's a light comedy, but also because the verse is easier to digest than in some of his more complex works that often give casual movie and theatergoers fits until they become acclimated to the prose.

It also doesn't hurt that nearly everyone can identify with the silly exuberance of being in love - especially at the beginning of any such relationship - and that certainly allows the audience to identify with the characters through the rekindling of such thoughts and feelings.

Many of the songs Branagh has chosen for the film obviously follow that same theme and elicit the same emotions, but they also serve as something of a "greatest hits" compilation of such tunes and numbers from that bygone era. As such, the film's score is wonderful to hear. From Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" (the "I'm in heaven" song) to Jerome Kern & Dorothy Field's "The Way You Look Tonight," and Berlin's fun, "Let's Face the Music and Dance" and the well-known "There's No Business Like Show Business" the tunes are a blast to hear once again, even if the latter is the one song that seemingly isn't a perfect fit with the play's context - but it's still fun.

Of course, the sight and sound of characters suddenly breaking into song and dance is obviously a bit goofy in today's age of moviemaking, as was the case and subsequent viewing reaction to Woody Allen's 1996 musical, "Everyone Says I Love You." Yet, after the second or third song, the antiquated and silly charm of the numbers will wear down any defense most viewers will have against them. From that point on, such songs will not only seem perfectly acceptable, but it's a good bet that nearly everyone will be moving some part of their body - be it a tapping foot or barely visible, rhythmic nodding of the head - to the fun and addictive beat.

That even includes moments where the likes of Kenneth Branagh ("Wild Wild West," "Celebrity") and Alessandro Nivola ("Mansfield Park," "Face/Off") float to the ceiling during the "I'm in Heaven" part of "Cheek to Cheek." Their performances, along with those of Adrian Lester ("Primary Colors," "Up on the Roof") and Matthew Lillard ("Wing Commander," "Scream"), are generally fine for this sort of genre, although Lillard occasionally looks as if he's out of place.

Some viewers may have the same reaction upon spotting Alicia Silverstone ("Clueless," "Batman & Robin") playing the Princess of France. Despite any such preconceived notions, however, she actually does an okay job with the role. The rest of the actress playing the characters of her court - Natascha McElhone ("Ronin," "The Truman Show"), Carmen Ejogo ("The Avengers," "Metro") and Emily Mortimer ("Disney's The Kid," "Scream 3") - are good, but unfortunately don't get the equal time given to their male counterparts.

Meanwhile, comic relief comes in the form of Nathan Lane ("Isn't She Great," "Mouse Hunt") and Timothy Spall ("Topsy-Turvy," "Still Crazy") who, while delivering decent performances, suffer a bit from their characters seeming somewhat incongruous with the rest of the plot (a residual aftereffect left over from the original play where such characters were needed to entertain and divert the audience while the main characters and stagehands set the next scene).

Despite that and the fact that the film takes a momentary bit of a somber turn as WWII breaks out and the lovers are separated, both are only minor bumps in what's otherwise a lighthearted, rather entertaining and mostly enjoyable film. While musicals might not ever come back in vogue and this sort of film obviously won't appeal to everyone, for those who don't mind the somewhat goofy feel this film exudes, this may easily rate as one of the better feel good pictures of the year. As such, "Love's Labour's Lost" receives a rating of 7 out of 10.

Reviewed May 15, 2000 / Posted June 23, 2000

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