American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
At one point in "Cymbeline," Michael Almereyda's modern-day take on the William Shakespeare play, the action stops for a minute for a scene featuring co-star Milla Jovovich singing Bob Dylan's "Dark Eyes." Speaking as an enormous fan of both of them, I thought this union of two favorites in the pop-culture firmament would be worth the price of admission all by itself. Alas, it is not because most of the rest of the film surrounding it is a conceptually weak and dramatically muddled mess that has acquired a game and good cast and then given them precious little to do.
To be fair, the basic material itself is not especially hot. Yes, it is Shakespeare but the play itself is little more than a rehash of elements that he has already handled with more insight in previous works ("Romeo & Juliet," "Othello," "Hamlet" and "As You Like It," to name a few) and is so plot-heavy that the characters feel more like traffic cops trying to move the story along than people about whom one is supposed to care. Many scholars have cited it as proof that Shakespeare was getting bored with his own work by this point in his career, though some, such as Harold Bloom, have looked upon it a little more forgivingly by suggesting that it was an example of Shakespeare deliberately spoofing himself. Whichever school of thought you subscribe to, this is not one of the Bard's more frequently revived efforts and after watching this take on it, I can understand why.
The action transposed to a modern-day American East Coast city, the film stars Ed Harris as Cymbeline, the king of the Briton Motorcycle Gang, a group that has forged an uneasy truce with the Roman police force that allows them to do business without interference. The apple of his eye is his daughter, Imogen (Dakota Johnson), his only remaining child after the disappearance of his two sons and the heir to his kingdom. He is insistent that she marry Cloten (Anton Yelchin), the son of his second wife, the Queen (Jovovich), but as the story opens, he learns that Imogen has defied him by falling in love (and secretly marrying) the penniless-but-true Posthumus (Penn Badgley). Cymbeline is outraged by this and sends Posthumus into exile. The Queen is no happier either by this revelation as she is the one behind the plan for Imogen to marry Cloten, so that she may then kill both Cymbeline and Imogen and make her son the king.
While the truce between the Britons and Romans falls apart and leads to bloodshed on both sides, Posthumus finds himself forced into a wager with the Iachimo (Ethan Hawke), an agitator who bets him that he can seduce Imogen and provide proof of the deed. Imogen manages to fend off his advances, but late one night, Iachimo fakes the evidence and the distraught Posthumus orders aide Pisanio (John Leguizamo) to murder Imogen in revenge for her unfaithfulness. Pisanio cannot bring himself to do this and instead advises Imogen to disguise herself as a man and go into hiding, which leads her to the doorstep of an old man (Delroy Lindo) and his two sons. This all leads to the usual array of Shakespearian plot twists--suicide, murder, war and magical potions that make people seem dead just long enough to cause a potentially grave misunderstanding or two.