What do you get when you throw a lesser known Shakespeare play, Kenneth Branagh, and a Cole Porter songbook into a blender? A nightmare, starring Matthew Lillard and Alicia Silverstone.
In December 2000, I was twelve years old and living in Walnut, Illinois, a small town the size of a postage stamp surrounded on all sides by cornfields. I was a nerdy kid, the type of twelve year old who watched The Daily Show and pre-Andy Cohen Bravo TV programming. I was also a budding cinephile, who scoured the racks of the local Family Video to discover any obscure gems that might have made it to our Midwestern paradise. It was on one of these regular runs to FamVid that I discovered what would become a singularly inexplicable obsession for years to come: the romantic comedy-musical Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Originally written by Shakespeare in the mid-1500s, forgotten by history and revived by Kenneth Branagh, Love’s Labour’s Lost is the story of four buddies, one of whom happens to be the king of fictitious Navarre. He’s played by Alessandro Nivola, who I had a very serious crush on but now only appears in watch ads in GQ. These bros decide to swear off ladies and vice for three years in order to dedicate themselves to study. But their plans for some hardcore bro-on-bro book learning are thwarted when the Princess of France and her three foxy friends show up at the gates to negotiate with the King. Hijinks and clever wordplay ensue.
But in the Branagh adaptation, this simple story is set in the fictional Kingdom of Navarre in 1939, right before World War II. The Shakespearean dialogue is broken up by regular song and dance numbers from the period, so if you’ve ever wanted to see Matthew Lillard do the Charleston or Alicia Silverstone do a little synchronized dance-swimming, you are in luck. The result is pretty cringey, with the actors going full 1930s musical while reciting Old English tongue twisters at lightening speed.
The film only made $299,792 after costing $13 million. It probably goes without saying that the movie is out of print, and has been for years. I happen to own one of the remaining copies, which I purchased in 2006 via Amazon for $4. Today an unopened DVD of the film will run you … $4 and change.
What appeal does a campy update of a Victorian play have for a twelve year old? Dear readers, I’ve asked myself that question on a regular basis for the past fourteen years. I didn’t just enjoy the movie, or watch it a couple times, or something innocuous like that. People, I memorized the damn thing. I knew every word of dialogue and every line of every song. To this day I can identify and walk you through key dance sequences. For the six years between when I discovered the movie and bought the DVD, I was the only person in Bureau County, IL, who rented the single copy of Love’s Labour’s Lost available to the public. I know because they told me multiple times.
It didn’t take long after getting to my teen years for me to realize that I needed to keep my love for this particularly grotesque movie quiet, much like other disgusting habits I’d formed over the years. Along with reading Evelyn Waugh novels and crushing hard on Jon Stewart before my peers knew who he was, enjoying a musical comedy with quick witted Victorian dialogue was not the kind of thing other kids would feel made me a good candidate for friendship. So, for the most part, I kept it on the down-low, saving it for sick days and holiday breaks.
There were two occasions on which my adoration for Love’s Labours Lost bit me in the ass, not counting things like social occasions wherein I mentioned it in casual conversation or that time I published an essay about the film on the internet. One was in History my Sophomore year of high school, when I included the title when asked to list Shakespeare plays on a test. The teacher checked it wrong, because apparently I’m the only person in Bureau County, IL, that values LLL. The next was when Kenneth Branagh starred as Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and all my jokes about the Kingdom of Navarre fell horribly flat.
But if we’re being honest, I have to admit that I still love the movie. I love the weirdness of putting Shakespearean dialogue alongside rompy love songs and using grainy newsreels to remind us all that war is on the horizon. I love that it randomly features a musical interpretation of an orgy, all limbs and masks. The whole thing is ridiculous from start to finish, but I love it now just as much as I did when I was twelve years old.
People say you can’t help what you love, and no matter how hard I try to remind myself that Love’s Labour’s Lost is not even endearing enough to garner a cult following a la The Room or Dune, I can’t help but hold on to my copy of the movie. It may be the worst movie I’ve ever loved, but I love it all the same.
Bridey is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.
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