Reimagining William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” as a black comedy set around a burger joint in early ’70s rural Pennsylvania, writer-director Billy Morrissette’s debut is a clever idea that doesn’t quite deliver. Considering all the sinister machinations of the source material, this bloody tale of greed, betrayal and murderous ambition comes up surprisingly short in terms of suspense and dramatic thrust. As comedy, it fares a little better thanks to a talented cast, but “Scotland, Pa.” offers more mild amusement than outright laughs, tagging the slick, colorful production as a minor commercial proposition.
Morrissette’s basic ploy of time-warping the Scottish play’s husband-and-wife hatchet team to the early days of the fast-food boom seems rife with possibility for sharp-edged satire about American consumer culture. But aside from some easy digs at McDonald’s, there’s no attempt to give this jokey exercise any contemporary relevance, resulting in a film that blithely struts along with the sense that it’s a whole lot smarter and funnier than it actually is.
What rescues the enterprise to a large extent is a quietly wicked central performance from Maura Tierney as lovely but ruthless and cunning Pat McBeth, who sees herself and terminally unmotivated, under-the-thumb husband Mac (James LeGros) as “underachievers who have to make up for lost time.”
Pat has grown tired of sweating over fry racks and grill plates for the couple’s boss Norm (James Rebhorn), who plans to revamp his restaurant as a drive-through diner that he hopes will herald the dawn of a fast-food empire. Eager to rule her own empire, Pat convinces Mac to fake a restaurant robbery and remove Norm from the picture.
Of all the ingredients in “Macbeth,” the three witches would appear to provide the greatest possibilities for an imaginative update. But Morrissette’s solution — two fey hippie potheads (Timothy Speed Levitch and Andy Dick) and a fortunetelling babe (Amy Smart) — is perhaps the film’s lamest and most irritating invention. The trio’s continued appearances before Mac have an unnerving effect on him, but he gets the job done, if not quite according to plan, shoving Norm to a suitably gruesome death in boiling oil.
Norm’s not-too-bereaved teenage sons (Tom Guiry and Geoff Dunsworth) — one a rebellious aspiring rocker, the other a show-tune-loving gay boy — are happy to offload the restaurant onto the McBeths. Paying for it with cash lifted from Norm’s safe, the couple swiftly transforms the place into a gold mine.
But their newfound wealth and happiness is threatened with the arrival of shrewd big city investigator Lt. McDuff (Christopher Walken). While suspicion at first points away from the McBeths, their old friend and fellow burger-flipper Banko (Kevin Corrigan) has some nagging doubts, necessitating more bloodshed.
There’s a lot to enjoy here in Tierney’s razor-sharp turn, LeGros’ lazy, likable slacker persona, Walken’s canny vegetarian cop and the frequently witty dialogue. But as the mayhem intensifies and sanity gets tested — with Mac increasingly falling prey to disturbing visions and Pat tormented by her own demons — the unevenly paced film loses rather than gains momentum, often seeming poised to kick into high gear but never quite making the switch.
Actor turned director Morrissette displays the requisite skills behind the camera, delivering a visually snappy production with help from d.p. Wally Pfister’s quirky camera angles, along with the candy colors of production designer Jennifer Stewart’s amusingly cheesy ’70s decor and David Robinson’s retro-cool costumes. Anton Sanko’s jaunty tango tunes and some bubble gum period pop provide a lift to the soundtrack.