Love's Labour's Lost
Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Alicia Silverstone, Kenneth Branagh, Natascha McElhone, Adrian Lester, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Lillard, Carmen Ejogo, Nathan Lane, Timothy Spall, Geraldine McEwan, Richard Briers, Stefania Rocca. Screenplay: Kenneth Branagh (adapted from the play by William Shakespeare).

Love's Labour's Lost is the Mars Attacks! of the year 2000, a winningly personal movie from an erratic director that seems like a bad movie only because it loves bad movies so much. Poisoned by bad press, Love's Labour's was lost from the theaters of Ithaca, New York, until my university finally picked the film up for a few screenings in October, four months after its debut on other U.S. screens. To accuse the movie, as many did, of grandiose ineptitude and interpretive insanity seems to me utterly to misunderstand director-adapter Branagh's project with this beguiling-enough lark of a movie, which Roger Ebert perfectly described as "so escapist it escapes even from itself." Yes, we cringe at some of the amateur hoofers Branagh has rounded up for this pre-WW2, musical revamping of Shakespeare's play, which, like Titus Andronicus, requires a highly stylized approach to make it particularly credible or worthwhile as cinematic entertainment. A lot doesn't work in Love's Labour's Lost, and admittedly, the embrace of bad filmmaking clichés is a surefire way to make one's own shortcomings seem "intentional." But most of the aspects of Branagh's fourth Shakespearean film adaptation that have drawn the most fire seem to me the most exciting and methodical, and damned if I wasn't moved to tears by the end of this thing.

Praise heaven for a film whose plot is so easy to condense: the King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola, of Face/Off and Mansfield Park) has recruited his three trustiest buddies, Berowne (Branagh), Longaville (She's All That's Matthew Lillard), and Dumaine (Primary Colors' Adrian Lester) into a pact by which all four men will sequester themselves in a library of learning for three whole years, agreeing to renounce regular meals, many hours of sleep, and, most importantly, all contact with women for the duration of their studies.

Branagh's character, the oldest of the bunch by about a decade, realizes the plan is foolhardy, if for no other reason than because the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone—yes, Alicia Silverstone) is even then bound for Navarre to negotiate a land buy-back from Nivola. Shame on anyone who doesn't immediately suspect that Silverstone arrives in the company of three lovely ladies—relative newcomers Carmen Ejogo and Emily Mortimer, and The Truman Show's hauntingly beautiful Natascha McElhone—who, as tends to happen in Shakespearean comedy and Hollywood kitsch, fall for the same respective gentlemen whose hearts have gone fluttery for them. That damn pact stands in the way of easy courtship, but, like most of the alleged "obstacles" presented in the play, it topples with remarkable ease before the lovers' exultations. In fact, the only real resistance we see in all of Love's Labour's Lost is that of the women, whose wit and foresight predictably surpass those of the men, allowing them to have all manner of fun at their muddled suitors' expense.

Indeed, the first problem with Love's Labour's Lost that makes it difficult to stage effectively is that the plots and counter-plots between the evenly matched men and women become a little too sealed off into their own hermetic world. Unlike later, more intricate comedies like Twelfth Night or Much Ado About Nothing (the latter of which Branagh filmed so ebulliently in 1993), the one-to-one matches between this play's lovers blocks all suspense as well as most of the audience's access into the story. Branagh's formal contrivance, then, of blending the play-text with the conventions of 1930s Hollywood musicals, creates an energizing capacity for surprise in a story that otherwise leaves little to question. We all know, or mostly know, who will end up with whom, and when, so Branagh poses a whole new set of kooky uncertainties: When will the cast suddenly burst into song, and what tune will they belt out? (The numbers are all cribbed from the established canons of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and the Gershwins.) When will the action suddenly change to a pool, a tent, or, as in one silly/entrancing sequence, into midair?

And will Alicia Silverstone and Matthew Lillard, the most obvious greenthumbs in the cast, ever pull off a well-pitched note or a convincing pirouette? The answer to this last question is generally, no, and I will admit that I was occasionally uncertain what Love's Labour's Lost had to gain from casting actors this improbable (or, maybe I'm just tired of Lillard's uncontrolled hysterics.) After all, if Love's Labour's Lost seems designed as a half-tribute, half-tweak of early movie musicals, the new film seems more on target skewering the structure of those predecessors, which anyone would concede was often inane, than the talent of the performers, which was generally quite high. Besides, the spark of seeing a real dancer like Lester (why isn't this man working more often?) or of hearing Geraldine McEwan's expert iambic timing as crusty tutor Holofernia (a change from the play's Holofernes) makes it hard for a while to extend benefit of the doubt to Silverstone's mushmouthed deliveries.

And yet, for two important reasons, Love's Labour's Lost—despite some shameless hamming in the supporting roles, a liberal amount of cutting that obscures certain plot details, and a Fosse-inspired number that seems incongruous even in a free-for-all like this one—generally succeeds at delighting us, and always seems inspired. Many commentators have noted a parallel with Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, in which a cast of primarily non-singers from Edward Norton to Julia Roberts sang because they wanted to, needed to, felt like it, not because they actually could. Some of that spirit does pervade Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost, but the important difference is that Allen made an Allen film with songs; he could have told a different story about those characters, one that didn't include the moments that prompted their singing. Shakespeare's characters exist for no other reason than to fall suddenly, effusively in love; the characters in the Bard's comedies, at least the early ones, cannot be imagined in any other context than their own romantic larks, and old Hollywood revues ran on essentially the same principle. Branagh has blended the two genres in which people do nothing but make fools of themselves at Cupid's behest. These kinds of folks probably never existed, which is why Shakespeare invents a country named Navarre, and Hollywood invented swimming pools where a hundred bathing beauties knew all the same ballet routines.

The second reason Love's Labour's Lost survives, even thrives in its transfer to a choreographical tradition it can't quite match is that the play is about people doing things that they're too young, or too untrained, to do, and yet are they are too na´ve until late in the fifth act to realize how far in over their heads they've ventured. I'll not spoil the ending of Love's Labour's Lost, especially since even those familiar with the play won't know how the film concludes—though I will say that figuring out that grammatically difficult title might be worth the effort. The final sequences, though, are simultaneously the most scatter-brained and the most sublime in the picture. Branagh reaches for a historical punch this material utterly doesn't deserve, and for the first time he seems to violate the one principle which this shockingly lightweight play actually seems to be about. Still, when all of the major cast-members get together to sing "They Can't Take That Away from Me," the objects of their clinging, possessive love aren't just each other but an entire history of cinematic goofiness that—all these years later, and for no rationally defensible reason—still packs an emotional wallop that our more "worldly" cinema only achieves in its better moments.

The last few minutes of Love's Labour's Lost are so unpredictably moving that I feel compelled to admit I like the film more than the grade I'm giving seems to indicate. I don't know for sure that it's a "well-made" film, or if everything I enjoyed about it derived from a happy coincidence of an eager-to-please cast and my own good mood. Still, though I've seen some (not many!) better movies in the year 2000, only three times have I felt compelled to see a movie twice, and only once out of sheer joy at the experience. Love's Labour's Lost wasn't lost on me at all; if I could float into the air, singing "Cheek to Cheek" with total, unabashed sincerity, I probably would. B–

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