Love's Labour's Lost

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Love's Labour's Lost

Ever since the screen musical died as a viable genre in the late '60s, soured by the twin atrocities of the Vietnam War and Joshua Logan's three-hour Camelot, the few attempts to resuscitate it have been steeped in self-awareness. With audiences no longer willing to accept non-animated characters breaking into song, the most successful films have turned to revisionism (Bob Fosse's All That Jazz), nostalgia (Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You), or both (Martin Scorsese's underrated New York, New York). Kenneth Branagh's decision to stage Love's Labour's Lost as a musical revue rests squarely in the nostalgia category, with a generic greatest-hits soundtrack featuring Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, and Rodgers & Hammerstein. But in Shakespeare's play, he's found a premise that wouldn't be out of place in the studio factories of the '30s, allowing him a golden opportunity to revisit the era with perfect verisimilitude. Considering the ingenious concept, which also evokes the eye-popping primary colors of Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen, why is Love's Labour's Lost such a misbegotten failure? As with other lesser Branagh films, he falls victim to his own exuberance, done in by the same inspired hubris that led to his self-nomination as Laurence Olivier's heir apparent in 1989's auspicious Henry V. Given a lighter and less vaunted Shakespeare work—this is its first screen adaptation—Branagh slips into Much Ado About Nothing mode, mistaking fleet-footed charm with cramming enchantment down the audience's throat. Staged in pre-war Britain, the amiably silly plot begins with an agreement signed by The King Of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and his compatriots (Branagh, Adrian Lester, and Matthew Lillard) to study philosophy for three years under rigorous guidelines, the most important being "no women." Their agreement is strained when The Princess Of France (Alicia Silverstone) and her waiting women (Natascha McElhone, Emily Mortimer, and Carmen Ejogo) show up and test their discipline. The battle between love and philosophy isn't a very close contest, but it's enough to keep the song-and-dance numbers coming at a regular clip, which is all a good musical requires. Branagh pays splashy homage to just about every major figure in the genre—Astaire and Rogers, Gene Kelly, Busby Berkeley, and Esther Williams, among others—but his efforts are as cloying and hollow as a bloated Broadway spectacular. Only Lester's graceful and joyous soft-shoe to Gershwin's "I've Got A Crush On You" offers a few steps worthy of the Golden Age.