Something’s rotten at the Denmark Corporation in Michael Almereyda’s jangling and incisive contemporary adaptation of Hamlet. The CEO, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), and his Manhattan socialite wife, Gertrude (Diane Venora), two ambitious social climbers in love with the ascent, are living a glitterati existence; that Claudius is suspected of murdering Gertrude’s first husband — the late president of the company — hardly disrupts their selfish fun.
But their treacherous shallowness makes Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) want to hurl. He’s a would-be video moviemaker, a Gen-X mope in a geek-chic hat with earflaps, a glowering depressive who hates his mother and stepfather for their hypocrisy and their cold disregard for his own grief. Lately, Hamlet has been troubled by the ghost of his dead father: At one point, the deceased appears in a laundry room, wearing a leather jacket, looking just like Sam Shepard.
All kinds of visions bombard this melancholy Dane; he lives in a world of media overload, the kind that can result in slackjawed inertia. Contemplating his famous ”To be, or not to be” conundrum in a bland Blockbuster Video store, he takes no notice of the signs organizing the aisles of tapes: Action, Action, Action. He’s a Hamlet for right now, this minute, played by a downtownish actor of right now, this minute. I usually think Hawke undermines even his best work with miscalculated attitude, but Almereyda uses the star’s detachment as a strength: Hamlet was something of a pill. Hawke makes him a designer drug.
Same goes for the rest of the very downtownish cast. Bill Murray, gleefully sharky and outrageously insincere, plays Polonius as a slick spin doctor who uses wiretaps even on his own daughter, Ophelia (Julia Stiles). She, in turn, is an unhappy flake not just because such notions are kicky, but because the modern-day analogues add to our understanding of characters so overly familiar that they sometimes appear stale.
An avid experimental filmmaker who expanded the powers of Pixelvision with his 1992 ”Another Girl, Another Planet,” Almereyda seems to thrive on low-budget restrictions (this was shot on Super 16). Challenged with a ”star” vehicle, he works in an ambitious, grabby, collage style. Instead of staging a play to expose the murder, this Hamlet makes a video, talking directly to the camera; Ophelia dies scattering a handful of Polaroids of herself. Almereyda excises big chunks of plot to shape his vision, but retains Shakespeare’s language and pays such rigorous attention to meaning and subtext that what’s missing isn’t missed.
There’s room for Almereyda’s ”Hamlet,” and Kenneth Branagh’s, and Mel Gibson’s, and Julie Taymor’s ”The Lion King” interpretation, and a thousand other novelty acts because Shakespeare’s plays stretch so exceptionally well to fit the times. In our time, the sinister turn of events at the Denmark Corporation couldn’t be more apt.