Whoever assembled the trailer for “Scotland, PA.” is nothing less than a miracle worker for extracting a few clips funny enough to suggest that a transposition of “Macbeth” to a small-town roadside cafe in the 1970s just might make for an amusing black comedy. The film, however, is so flat and uninspired that in context not even those clips are funny.
Writer-director Billy Morrissette got the idea for this bit of a stretch 20 years ago when he was working at a Dairy Queen for a boss he hated, at the same time he was introduced to “Macbeth.” Morrissette thankfully didn’t go so far as to retain Shakespeare’s dialogue but is faithful to the plot.
Unfortunately, in his reworking he was unable to create characters of even the slightest interest, resulting in a film that remains lifeless throughout its plodding 102 minutes. Pat McBeth (Maura Tierney, who is married to Morrissette) and her husband, Joe (James LeGros), are a waitress and cook, respectively, at Duncan’s, a modest eatery. They have great sex, but Pat wants more out of life. When their boss, Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn), passes over Joe for the position of manager in favor of his oldest son, Malcolm (Tom Guiry), who hates the joint and wants only to become a rock star, Pat has had it.
She gets her husband to whack Duncan to death, and Malcolm and his equally uninterested younger brother, Donald (Geoff Dunsworth), gladly sell them the place for a pittance. The McBeths immediately remodel it into a McDonald’s replica, complete with drive-thru. This glitzy face-lift is the high point of the film’s only successful aspect, the spot-on contribution of production designer Jennifer Stewart and her team and of costume designer David Robinson.
Success comes swiftly, but Lt. Ernie McDuff (Christopher Walken), brought in from the big city to investigate Duncan’s death, keeps poking around and asking endless questions with a folksy, unctuous insistence. Because Pat and Joe are essentially dim types lacking in moral imagination, they are incapable of experiencing true guilt, which leads to more murders.
It’s easy to accuse Morrissette of condescending to a bunch of yokels, but hardly anybody would hold that against him if the result had been hilarious instead of deadly dull. Tierney, LeGros and many others are game, but only Walken has the chance to display wit that lifts him above the surrounding desolation.
Morrissette’s only real stab at a light touch is in turning Shakespeare’s Three Witches into a trio of prophetic hippies, one of whom is played by Timothy “Speed” Levitch, whose beguilingly frenetic personality was captured in the memorable documentary “The Cruise”; one hopes he has held on to his day job as a Manhattan tour guide.
MPAA rating: R, for language, some nudity, drug content and brief violence. Times guidelines: The violence may be brief, but it is extremely brutal.
James LeGros ... Joe ‘Mac’ McBeth
Maura Tierney ... Pat McBeth
Christopher Walken ... Lt. Ernie McDuff
Kevin Corrigan ... Anthony ‘Banco’ Banconi
A Lot 47 release. Writer-director Billy Morrissette. Based on “Macbeth,” by William Shakespeare. Producers Richard Shepard, Jonathan Stern. Executive producers Karen Lauder, Marcus Ticotin. Cinematographer Wally Pfister. Editor Adam Lichtenstein. Music Anton Sanko. Costumes David Robinson. Production designer Jennifer Stewart. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
At selected theaters.