Published February 7, 2002
Billy Morrissette’s hilarious up-dating of Macbeth, called Scotland PA, is to Shakespeare as P.D.Q. Bach is to Bach. In other words, it’s nothing to do with real Shakespeare, but it is funny. And to get the jokes it helps to know a little about Shakespeare’s play. Filmed in Nova Scotia, which doesn’t look much like Pennsylvania at all, the movie centers around Duncan’s Diner, a fast-food joint in Scotland, Pa. in 1972, which started out as a doughnut shop (Duncan’s Do-nuts), but which its proprietor, Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn), has expanded into a new full-service, burgers-and-ice cream, fast food joint. When his cook, “Mac” McBeth (James LeGros) tells Norm that his manager, Doug McKenna (Josh Pais) has been dipping into the till, Norm fires Doug, making Mac his assistant manager. He even listens seriously to Mac’s suggestions for improving the restaurant.
But Mac’s wife, Pat McBeth (Maura Tierney), feels insulted that Mac’s reward is not greater. Believing that Mac’s ideas for expansion — including a French-fry truck and a revolutionary new drive-through window with microphones — can make them both rich if Norm is out of the way, she persuades Mac to kill him with an unerring sense of his susceptibility to pop psychobabble. “We’re not bad people, Mac; we’re just underachievers who have to make up for lost time. Don’t you think you deserve it Mac?” The scenes of Norm’s murder are among the funniest things in the picture and signify that, whatever may be its resemblances to Macbeth, the tragic sense of these events is not among them. Norm goes face down in the deep fat fryer, and a gout of hot grease splashes onto Pat’s hand while Mac is opening the safe. She will never subsequently be able to believe that the sore has gone away.
Suspicion for the murder at first falls on Norm’s spoiled, rock-musician son, Malcolm (Tom Guiry), especially when he sells the restaurant on very favorable terms to Mac and Pat and goes off on tour with his band, leaving his younger brother Donald (Geoff Dunsworth) at home to discover that he is gay. Mac’s friend, Anthony (Banko) Banconi (Kevin Corrigan), knows more than he is saying, and when, with the help of the stolen money, Mac and Pat are successful at turning Duncan’s Diner into a new, glitzy McBeth’s, complete with familiar giant arches, Banko gets the job of driving the French-fry truck. Until, that is, Mac decides that he poses too great a threat to the new rustic retreat and life of affluence lived by “The McBeths.” But local police Lieutenant Ernie McDuff (Christopher Walken), a vegetarian who listens to a 70s-style motivational monologues on his car’s tape-player (“Tomorrow is tomorrow; tomorrow is not today. Today is who I am”), is soon on the case.
Leaving aside for the moment the film’s conversion of tragedy into a very special kind of comedy, parasitic upon the tragedy it burlesques, the difference from Shakespeare (who gets a story credit) is that without the moral and social elevation of the main characters there is no sense of the special evil involved in the corruption of the state and the monarchy. This is not an unimportant detail and could in itself be a constructive commentary on Shakespeare if only because it shows that what is a tragedy when it concerns matters of state effortlessly becomes a comedy when translated into a battle over a burger joint in rural Pennsylvania.
A lot of the comedy also derives from the period setting. The three witches, for example, are hippies (one of them played by Timothy “Speed” Levitch from The Cruise [q.v.]) who are sitting in a Ferris-wheel gondola in a deserted amusement park, eating some kind of fast-food chicken, as Mac is making his way home from the late shift at the diner. “Christ, I dropped the chicken!” says one.
“The fowl was foul,” says another, and giggles
“And the fair was fair,” says a third. “My ass hurts.” Their nonsensical chanting is seen as being drug-induced, and they set the comic tone picked up by the garish clothes and haircuts, the McBeths’ waterbed, the portraits of Richard Nixon on the walls of official buildings, even a streaker in the final scene. Above all, there is the knowing sensibility appealed to by making Donald homosexual with all the signs known to us (love of musicals, for instance, or interest in male athletes in suggestive poses) but still unrecognizable to the innocents of 1972!
My favorite line in the picture comes as the McBeths and their flunkies are taking counsel about how to deal with McDuff’s increasing suspicions of them. “I’ve got it,” says someone. “Mac should kill Mcduff’s entire family. That would stop him.”
“About a thousand years ago, maybe,” says Mac. “You can’t go around killing everybody today.” And the idea is dropped. It is another reminder in the body of the film of the distance separating us from Shakespeare’s world — and that the only thing to be done about it is to laugh.