A pedigreed cast, led by the formidable Helen Mirren and including David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, Djimon Hounsou and Alfred Molina, cannot save the misguided mess that is Julie Taymor's "The Tempest."
It's just too weird. And it's a waste of one of Shakespeare's richest comedies, the play that's considered his last.
You want to admire Taymor for taking such risks, for trying to do something different with a classic work. And in the wildly visual style that's become her trademark through stage productions like "The Lion King" and films like "Frida," "Across the Universe" and a previous Shakespeare adaptation, "Titus," she upends and reinvents the play on many levels.
The sorcerer Prospero is now Prospera, whom Mirren plays with a growl and a refreshing lack of vanity; at 65, she goes makeup-free, an exciting display of her natural beauty. But while Mirren is always more than reliable - and she clearly knows her way around Shakespeare - the gender-bending of the lead role feels like a gimmick and provides no greater meaning to the text.
Here, Prospera uses her mystical powers to force her enemies to shipwreck on the island where she's been in exile for years with her daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones). (The spectacularly severe exteriors were shot in Hawaii.) With help from her spirit sidekick, Ariel (Ben Whishaw), and the reluctant Caliban (Hounsou), she carries out revenge on those who forced her from power in Milan, including King Alonso (Strathairn) and her brother, Antonio (Cooper). Meanwhile, she also toys with a couple of clowns (Molina and Russell Brand) and orchestrates a romance between Miranda and Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney).
And yet, despite offering this brave new world that has such dynamic people in it, to borrow from the Bard, "The Tempest" is strangely ... boring. Kind of a drag. Never as funny as it ought to be, which is even more curious when you consider the inclusion of Brand, who normally brightens up everything with his irrepressible presence. Here, he just feels like a miscast distraction as Trinculo. He's so contemporary and so giddily beaming his own cheeky, debauched persona, he takes you right out of the action.
Speaking of the action, too often the visual effects in "The Tempest" look like something that would have seemed high-tech during the early days of MTV. Ariel flits and zips across the sky, floats in the water, hovers in the air, and without fail the result is awkward and strangely off-putting. It's like a bad green-screen effect, as if Whishaw and Mirren are having conversations with each other from two separate films, and an uncharacteristically jarring misstep from a director who's obsessed with aesthetic details.
Along those lines, though, the costumes from three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell are beautifully eclectic - sometimes appealingly rough, other times soft and ethereal. Maybe this version of "The Tempest" might have functioned more effectively as a conceptual fashion show.
"The Tempest," a Touchstone Pictures and Miramax Films release, is rated PG-13 for some nudity, suggestive content and scary images. Running time: 110 minutes. Two stars out of four.