Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” has fared pretty well on screen–from the “authentic” Franco Zeffirelli version of 1967 with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to the musicalization “Kiss Me Kate” in 1953 and the teen comedy “10 Things I Hate About You” in 1999. But all good strings must come to an end, apparently even for the Bard, and “Deliver Us from Eva” stops this one in its tracks. To be sure, the credits make no mention of the paternity, but the debt that the screenplay owes to the play is obvious. (The omission is, in its own way, as absurd as the notorious credit in the mediocre 1929 version with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, which read “with additional dialogue by [director] Sam Taylor.”)
The twist here is that the story has been adapted to a contemporary middle-class African-American milieu. Eva Dandridge (Gabrielle Union) is the shrew, a sharp-tongued, perfectionist LA health inspector and rigorous surrogate mother to her three younger sisters (Essence Atkins, Robinne Lee, Meagan Good). Her influence is considered baleful by the siblings’ guys–Mel Jackson, Duane Martin and Dartanyan Edmonds, respectively–and they hire a self-styled “player” (rapper LL Cool J, here also credited as James Todd Smith) to woo her so that they will have a freer romantic hand. Predictably he finds himself actually falling for Eva, and she for him; but needless to say, the fact that the relationship is “fruit of the poisoned tree,” as the lawyers would say, causes a brief hiatus in the blossoming of true love.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a transformation, of course; the “Shrew” has proven extremely resilient in the face of such treatment. The problem in this case is in the execution. The script is not only practically laughless–some randy remarks from Ray’s three employers apart–but strangely unpleasant. The motivations in Shakespeare’s play can seem sour to begin with, of course, but adept rethinking (as in “Kate” and “Things”) can get around that; the scripters here haven’t succeeded. Much of the problem rests with Eva’s dialogue; she’s supposed to sound intellectual, but comes across as smug and pompous instead, and as a result Union has a difficult time making her likable. Cool J/Martin has a relaxed presence, but on the evidence of this film he’s not really romantic leading-man material; everyone in the cast keeps remarking on how “fine” he is, but he looks (and acts) rather like Charles S. Dutton’s younger brother. The supporting cast tends to overplay. One oughtn’t to blame the performers too much, though, because a good deal of the fault can be laid at the feet of director Gary Hardwick (“The Brothers”). His touch is stilted and unsure, with the result that most scenes are poorly paced, flaccid, and shapeless; almost every one of them seems to run a few seconds too long. The upshot is that most viewers will plead for deliverance not just from Eva, but from the whole movie.
On the technical level, though, “Deliver Us from Eva” is an attractive enough proposition. Alexander Gruszynski’s camerawork is solid, and the production design and art direction are more than adequate, too. Curiously, the score isn’t as effective as one might expect. Many scenes in the earlier portion of the picture are played without background music, which leaves them ever flatter than they would otherwise be, and when songs do pop up on the soundtrack later, the volume seems off.
In fact, when all is said and done what you might best remember about the picture is the title sequence, a colorful song-and-dance number for the leading players. Maybe if the rest of the movie had been a musical, too…but then, it would be hard to compete with Cole Porter!