Picks and Pans Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

updated 02/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Gary Oldman, Tim Roth

To indulge Tom Stoppard or not to indulge him, that is the question.

Stoppard, the justly esteemed playwright (The Real Thing) and screenwriter (The Russia House), here directs his adaptation of his 1966 play. It extrapolates from Hamlet, following the offstage actions of the two minor characters whom Claudius enlists to spy on their sometime friend, the Prince.

There is an intriguing notion behind all this: how events can overwhelm simple people. But Stoppard buries the idea in a surrealistic film that includes slapstick pratfalls, semantic games, splashes of fantasy and continual confusion over who is Rosencrantz (Oldman, late of State of Grace) and who is Guildenstern (Roth, Vincent van Gogh in Vincent & Theo).

As the opening credits roll, the sound track plays a blues tune punctuated by a baying hound. The next scene is of Oldman and Roth riding on horseback. It's clear this isn't any guys-in-tights Shakespeare.

Then Oldman and Roth toss a coin that comes up heads 156 times in a row and start speculating about how this could happen. They run into the play-within-the-play wandering-actor troupe, led by Richard Dreyfuss, whose increasingly inchoate dialogue seems designed to make him represent either the flip side of reality, real reality or the false face of reality as seen in a mirror that hasn't been Windexed in a while.

Then they wander around Elsinore Castle, alternately appearing in their real Hamlet scenes and musing about their fate. There is some amusing but fairly gentle satire. After the duo eavesdrops on one of Hamlet's soliloquies, Oldman explains, "Half of what he said meant something else, and the rest didn't mean anything at all."

The philosophizing, though, gets precious: "What's the first thing you remember...after all the things you've forgotten?" Roth asks. "I've forgotten the question," Oldman replies.

Soon what seems intended to be along the lines of Waiting for Godot is more likely to evoke a two-hour Abbott and Costello skit—and a very bad one at that. (PG)

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