The term “high concept” has been defined as an idea for a movie which can be described in one, preferably short, sentence; the appeal to filmmakers (at least at the management level) being that such a concept facilitates word-of-mouth. In that regard, Scotland, PA is as about as high as concepts get: Shakespeare’s Macbeth played out in the setting of a fast-food joint in New Jersey in the early ’70s. Not bad, but the trick then is to flesh out the concept for 102 minutes, to build on it rather than expose its basic thinness. And though writer-director Billy Morrissette gives it a game try, this high concept starts to deflate well before it reaches the halfway mark.
Joe McBeth (James LeGros) is the poor sap whose feeble ambition is stirred by the voracious appetite for power of his wife, Pat (Maura Tierney, of “NewsRadio” and “ER” fame). Passed over for an important promotion by the owner of the downscale restaurant where he works, Joe, egged on by Pat, commits the first of a series of murders that parallel the escalating sins of the original Macbeth and which will lead to his enthronement as the owner and manager of a McDonalds-like haven, complete with the world’s first drive-by ordering service.
The fly in the ointment, aside from the couple’s bad conscience, is the dogged Lt. Ernie McDuff, played by Christopher Walken. Walken once said in an interview that the first thing he does when he gets a script is to remove all the punctuation. This may explain his famously eccentric line readings — the way the end of one sentence will attach itself to the beginning of the next and odd pauses will linger for a few extra beats. That and his ability to switch from menacing to amused in a blink make him always watchable, and it’s during his scenes that the movie rises above its generally leaden cleverness.
But not too far above. The whole enterprise has the feeling of being a late-period entry in the indie era, where quirkiness has become codified into a series of whimsical but worn gestures, and its alternative cred is assured by the appearance of the usual suspects — Kevin Corrigan, Andy Dick, etc. But the problem, to paraphrase somebody, lies not in its stars but in its writing: High concept or low, the movie would have been better if the jokes had been funnier.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].