We'll never know if Shakespeare would have
appreciated She's the Man, an update of his play Twelfth
Night: Or What You Will reset in teen sports comedy land. It is a good bet, at least, he's not rolling in his
grave about it, at least no more than Ovid and Chaucer, among others, were rolling in theirs during the Elizabethan
era, when the Bard put the poet in poetic license with his own reworking of classics like Pyramus and Thisbe
(as Romeo and Juliet) and The Knight's Tale (as The Two Noble Kinsmen). Twelfth
Night was itself somewhat a variation of his own The Comedy of Errors, an early title based rather
faithfully on Plautus' Menaechmi.
The works of William Shakespeare remain one of the rare arguments in favor of remakes these days, as repeat after rehash after revival is met with great public disdain. There was little plot development he didn't lift from some prior story, but his genius was in how he told, not what he told, and it is the language of his writing that has carried distinction over time. It is therefore ironic that modern versions of his plays, in turn, inherit a sort of credibility by making a legacy out of the action.
I am guilty as anyone when it comes to embracing the "inspired by..." credit, particularly when those two
words are followed by a title of Shakespeare's. I excitedly flocked to Tim Blake Nelson's O and Gil Junger's 10
Things I Hate About You, high school movies paying tribute to "Othello" and "The Taming of the
Shrew", respectively. She's the Man intrigued me even more than usual because it was while studying
"Twelfth Night" in high school that I first became interested in the evolution of stories, and it wasn't long
after that my analysis of narratives developed into my critical approach to film.
So, She's the Man arrives with much ado about something: a seasoned concept and qualified birthright that supports its traditionalism and rests upon its potential. Co-written by Karen McCullah & Kirsten Smith, the duo behind the relevant 10 Things, the script follows through with being appreciable in regards to its heritage, though too many problematic liberties are taken and not enough insight into its adaptable capabilities is given for it to match its promise. And on its own, the movie makes as much sense as the deservedly forgotten, Menaechmi-induced Big Business, starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin.
At least Big Business retains the comic confusion of mistaken identity that was continually one of Shakespeare's non-verbal strengths. She's the Man relies instead too heavily on the drag aspects of the story, primarily following Viola (Amanda Bynes) as she impersonates her twin brother (by name more than by looks —a contradiction from its source) in order to play on the boys' soccer team at Illyria Prep. Working with dated gender politics —Viola sets out to prove her athletic equality while avoiding the debutante desires of her high society mother (Julie Hagerty)—the movie is only Twelfth Night by way of Just One of the Guys, which completely disposed of the twin brother role that She's the Man includes with an irreverent disregard.
Surrounding the egalitarian themes is the heart of Twelfth Night, consisting of a complicated web of who loves whom. Justin (Robert Hoffman) wants Viola. She wants Duke (Channing Tatum). He wants Olivia (Laura Ramsey). She wants Sebastian/Viola. And on the outskirts there's Monique (Alex Breckinridge) who wants the real Sebastian (James Kirk), and Malcolm (James Snyder) who also wants Olivia. Unfortunately the movie misses out on some wicked fun by leaving out the practical jokes at the climax of Shakespeare's play. Has Mean Girls done nothing to influence the teen movie genre? Aside from a few bits of chaste innuendo, She's the Man plays down its lewd possibilities so much that the Virgin Queen of Shakespeare's England would scoff at its innocence.
Without including the play's merry pranksters or the substantial elements of their foil, Malvolio (who is lightly represented by the character Malcolm and his pet tarantula), She's the Man could still have had more fun with its other roles, but it fails miserably as an ensemble piece. Most of the cast is boringly beautiful, existing on screen with no more vitality than they'd express in a Teen Beat pinup. Tatum, showing more of his physical attributes than dramatic talents, slips through the memory like so many other young males of today's films geared toward teen girls, maintaining a practice of pictures starring the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff, the Olsens or Mandy Moore that has turned the classic idea of dime-a-dozen starlets on its ear.
The absence of memorable supporting roles is customary for this kind of teen movie lately, as they primarily aim to spotlight the young female leads. Bynes, while a lesser star than her peers, is worth every bit of her domination of screen time. She rises above her television past, benefiting from certain advantages of that medium, mainly her superb ability for face comedy. At any moment her expressions can alleviate an otherwise hackneyed scene or line of dialogue. Because the film's future lies on the small screen, Bynes' gifts are perfectly suited to the format. I haven't seen such facial facility since James Van Der Beek went unrecognized for his brilliantly demonstrative performance in The Rules of Attraction. I would love to see the two of them together in a movie limited exclusively to close-up shots.
Facial expression is typically not applicable in theatrical productions of Shakespeare, but it is much easier to plausibly represent look-alikes, twins and impersonators on stage than on the big screen. Bynes isn't believable as a boy or as a dead ringer for James Kirk, but the context, the tone and our charmed support for the actress and the character make for easy suspension of disbelief. It is easy to become absorbed into her world, in which she seems so bright among dim bulbs who can't see right through her. At least we are won over by her quick wit and cunning efforts. You'd never imagine that somebody could seriously explain having tampons for nosebleeds or that somebody could change clothes so covertly in a Tilt-A-Whirl (not even Superman), but Bynes convinces.
If Shakespeare were alive today, he might be penning remakes for the studios. One thing that is for sure, though, is that they'd at least be well worded and displaying of a fresh perspective. I wish that he were here to show screenwriters that it is okay to be void of ideas, and that it is often the approach and the direction that count more. Filmmakers who attempt retreads of Shakespeare's plays shouldn't even need him around to understand this point, though.