Scotland, Pa.
directed by Billy Morrissette
(Lot 47, 2001)

There's trouble brewing in Scotland, Pa.

Norm Duncan's manager is robbing him blind, and Duncan's son, Malcolm, wishes Duncan were dead. And it isn't long before gold-digging counter girl Pat McBeth is urging her husband, grill man Joe "Mac" McBeth, to make all their dreams come true.

If the names -- and the scenario -- sound familiar, they should. Writer-director Billy Morrissette shares writing credits on Scotland, Pa. with considerably better-known author William Shakespeare, whose hoary tale of McMurder and McMayhem he has retooled considerably, but hardly disrespectfully.

Scotland moves the scene of the crime from MacBeth's castle and nearby heath to a somewhat old-fashioned burger joint in Scotland, Pa. -- about three hours from Atlantic City, as we're informed on any number of occasions -- and the time to 1975, as is made obvious by an endless succession of flamboyant cars, clothes and haircuts.

At stake this time around, however, is not who will rule the kingdom, but who will run the restaurant, and how. You see, Duncan has just devised a brilliant scheme unheard of in the annals of the restaurant business circa "75: he plans to install a drive-through lane, complete with a booth for taking people's orders. And Mac, who's just been promoted to new assistant manager in the wake of the old one's firing, has an idea that could revolutionize the drive-through business: no booth -- an intercom.

It's an idea worthy of Monty Python, but played in a much lower key at considerably lower volume. Maura Tierney is masterful as Mac's status-seeking spouse, who will go to any lengths to "out the damned spot" on her hand -- no, not a bloodstain but a grease burn, which gives you some idea of how they cooked poor Duncan's goose.

James LeGros, in contrast, grows slowly into his role as Tierney's hormonal husband, heeding his wife's call to upward mobility when what he'd really rather do is have another beer.

But Christopher Walken underplays them both as the cut-rate Columbo brought in to solve Duncan's murder. What his body language doesn't say, his deadpan delivery does. And his bit in the car listening to self-help tapes is priceless.

All in all, Tierney, LeGros and Walken could make up the nastiest crew assembled since Fargo, and certainly the funniest. And that's before you factor in the three witches -- Stacy, Hector and Jesse (Amy Smart, Timothy "Speed" Levitch and Andy Dick) -- a trio of stoners who hang out after hours at the local amusement park and attempt to tell Mac's fortune with the aid of a magical 8 ball.

All this is cleverly photographed, with Halifax, Nova Scotia, standing in for Scotland, and quickly paced so that Morrissette's carefully crafted images keep you laughing, guessing and unprepared for the next complication, which is never far around the next bend. And wait until you see what Morrissette, in his first ever outing as writer and director, has done with the ghost banquet.

There are some things Scotland can't do, of course, such as bringing Birnham Wood to Dunsinane. And it never even tries to threaten McBeth with "no man born of woman."

But in just about every other way imaginable, Morrissette manages to echo Shakespeare's tragedy -- in even less time than it took the Bard to do it, and with a much funnier ending. Walken sees to that.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 4 October 2003

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