Jordan Galland's comedy "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead" is almost as dementedly clever as the Tom Stoppard play that inspired its title. The script is a tangled web of ideas and references that constantly fold over upon themselves, displaying both sharp literary intelligence and tongue-in-cheek pop silliness; it even goes meta by name-checking Stoppard in the story's play-within-the-movie - then showing a hipster audience smirking at the "clever" reference-joke.
Jake Hoffman plays Julian Marsh, a twentysomething slacker and incurable womanizer who lives in the spare room of his dad's medical office. He takes a job at a low-rent off-Broadway theater, directing "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead," which is at first glance just another nutty take on "Hamlet," this one dumping vampires and the Holy Grail into the mix. The play's author - who'd already cast himself as Horatio - is Theo Horace (John Ventimiglia), a pale Romanian fellow with a penchant for teleportation and sexual magnetism; could he be a real-life vampire? (Spoiler: yes.)
Julian writes off most of the odd goings-on as typical theater world melodramatics; after all, anyone who's spent enough time backstage is bound to take sexed-up, slightly demented Eurotrash for granted. Besides, he sees the gig as a chance to win over his struggling actress ex-girlfriend Anna (Devon Aoki), who's plenty happy to take the role of Ophelia, although she's not as quick to take Julian back, seeing how he's still sleeping around with every gal in town and she's currently dating greasy goodfella Bobby Bianchi (Ralph Macchio, of all people, and downright perfect in the role), who, by the way, is trying to market a hand sanitizer squirt gun. Don't ask.
Meanwhile, Julian's best pal Vince (Kris Lemche) lands the Hamlet role, even though he overlooks the advice of a mad homeless woman who corners him, hands him a pen, and warns ominously, "If you're ever in a play with vampires and Hamlet, you call the number on the side of that pen. You are in great danger." But of course.
The mad homeless woman turns out to be an agent for Rosicrucian and Goldenstone, a secret society sworn to tracking down the key players in this "Shakespiracy." And the play turns out to be not so fictional, a mystical ingredient in Horatio and Hamlet's centuries-long fight over the Holy Grail. To explain more would be to fill the review with paragraphs upon paragraphs of convoluted backstory, so I'll simply pause here, mentioning only that the real Hamlet eventually shows up, and when he does, it's awesome.
Oh, and Jeremy Sisto stops by to play a bumbling cop. Which, also, is awesome.
Writer/director Galland, making his feature debut, takes plenty of risks, most successful of which is simply trusting his audience. The script plows forward with great speed and confidence, assuming the viewer can keep up - no easy task when the story blurs lines between reality and the stage, when histories pile up in every corner, when subplots merge and twist throughout. This is a smart film that expects its audience to be just as smart.
And it's also wickedly, howlingly funny, the comedy kept up at a steady clip throughout. Galland and his cast never oversell a single joke; most of the humor comes from Hoffman's deadpan take on the whole thing. With so much absurdity, our slacker hero grounds us by blowing everything off. When the bizarre truths do become all too clear to him, he still remains focused on one idea: who cares about vampires and Holy Grails, when saving his ex-girlfriend's life is the surest way to win her back?
The Julian-Anna relationship is surprisingly strong for such an absurd horror-comedy, a genre that often relies more on gimmickry than character. Here, we're shown a complicated, wholly believable almost-couple who honestly care for each other, whatever their current dating status. Hoffman is just as wonderful at bringing a quiet charm to the romance as he is playing straight man to the insanity around him, while Aoki, who's rarely been asked to be this good in front of the camera, is unexpectedly fantastic. Together, they could've easily been dropped into an indie romantic comedy, and that's how they play off each other here. It's just that while they're falling back in love, they also have to deal with this whole vampire nonsense.
Indeed, while most viewers will flock to "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead" for its winky title and offbeat premise, they'll find themselves sticking around for the characters, who keep the film from becoming a one-joke affair. The utter insanity of the comedy, well, that's worth sticking around for, too.
A final thought. Sean Lennon, a frequent collaborator on previous Galland projects, has produced a rather excellent musical score for this film. I could not find a way to cleverly work this information into the review, but really, when you've got Sean Lennon writing film music, you have to mention it somewhere, so here it is.