Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" is like a trivia quiz about William Shakespeare's "Hamlet." If you know "Hamlet" fairly well, you'll understand most of the references here that may seem arcane to those less familiar with the play.Of course, it may be fortuitous that Stoppard's film, which he wrote and directed, adapting his own play, comes hot on the heels of Franco Zeffirelli's "Hamlet," with Mel Gibson.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters in "Hamlet," former friends of the Danish prince who are summoned to the royal court by the king, who plans to use them in plotting Hamlet's death.
As portrayed in this film, they are a sort of Shakespearean Laurel and Hardy, two bumbling nincompoops - one dumb and the other dumber . . . though the latter character keeps doing little things that bely how dimwitted he seems.
As portrayed by Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, these two unfortunate fellows - who have trouble remembering who is Rosencrantz and who is Guildenstern - travel to the royal court of Denmark and participate in what seems like "Hamlet" turned inside-out.
On the way and eventually within the palace, they repeatedly encounter a ham actor called the Player (Richard Dreyfuss), who knows more about the court intrigue than he lets on and who appears and reappears to drop hints and clues - which are lost on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Meanwhile, the bulk of the film has the two title characters bantering in convoluted wordplay that makes Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First?" routine seem positively simplistic, and lots of goofy little sight gags that range from slapstick pratfalls to anachronistic inventions.
This is Monty Python to the max, by way of Hal Roach, and how audiences will take to it is purely a matter of taste. For me there were moments that made me chuckle and others that seemed fairly tedious. But there were few that seemed truly inspired.
Perhaps that's because this is essentially a stage work, so detailed and complex that, at times, it seems overwhelming. Or maybe the pacing is just too lethargic, where a more frenzied sense of timing might have made it move better.
At a full two hours in length, there are just too many stretches where little or nothing is going on, where the title characters stand around and observe scenes from "Hamlet."
Still, Shakespeare buffs will likely consider this a must-see. And there may be enough chuckles to satisfy a cult of others.
"Rosencrantz and Guildentstern Are Dead" is rated PG for violence and some brief nudity, along with sexual innuendo.