Existential comedy. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, when you think about it- people contemplating the vagaries of existence hardly sounds like the makings of a laugh riot. And an existential comedy based on Hamlet, one of the most famous stage tragedies in theatre history, sounds even less feasible. But somehow, probably due to the incredible wit of writer-director Tom Stoppard and the fantastic pairing of Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead manages to overcome its potential shortcomings, achieving a level of philosophical sophistication that is belayed by its lighthearted sense of humor. From seemingly out of nowhere, we are greeted by two riders, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern- friends who find themselves wandering aimlessly with no memory of who exactly they are (or more specifically, which is which), where they've come from, or where they're going. Finally, they come across a rabble of traveling actors (slash prostitutes), or "Tragedians", led by a nameless Player, and shortly thereafter are stranded in the castle of Elsinore, watching as the events of the play Hamlet unfold mystifyingly around them (and trapped within the span of those events) while the Player alludes to truths that neither man can understand- that they aren't the architects of their own fate, and that they are simply bit players in a far grander story. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a comic duo who are a lot like Laurel and Hardy, Ren and Stimpy, or, most accurately, C-3PO and R2-D2 (inconsequential characters weaving through an epic tapestry). Rosencrantz (or Guildenstern), played by Gary Oldman, is an innocent, simple character, taking simple pleasures out of his situation and never really looking past the immediate (though he often shows startling flashes of insight that catch us off guard, such as with his preponderance of death at the end of act two). He's sort of a childlike character, and the fact that Gary Oldman is able to channel that so convincingly is astonishing (especially considering the number of evil bastards he's played); he really keeps the film from getting too morbid and serious. The straight man to Oldman's clown, Guildenstern (or Rosencrantz), played by Tim Roth, is a more analytical, hot-headed guy who finds the inexplicable nature of their situation infuriating and is consistently exasperated by his more obtuse companion. While it's not as fun of a part as Rosencrantz (or Guildenstern), Roth does get some good bits as the brighter of the two wits, and all of the dramatic beats originate with him (especially by the end). The pair find themselves subject to the whims of a reality that they have no memory of or control over, forced to take their situation for granted in the hopes of finding a deeper meaning to their presence or, at least, a way out of it all. The key to this would seem to be the mysterious Player, played by Richard Dreyfuss, a burlesque character who mocks their search for truth and seems to be the orchestrator of their situation (even if he, too, is bound by his own part- or parts- in it). Dreyfuss is fun as the all-too-knowing showman whose whole existence is defined by his craft (hence his lack of a proper name), a seemingly obscene character (especially after his first scene) who is blunt and uncaring- representative, maybe, of an indifferent world. The funny thing is that the play (upon which this is based) seems to tackle the idea of "what do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do between their scenes in Hamlet" from a sort of ironic standpoint- that what their doing between their Hamlet scenes is trying to justify their own existence until another scene crops up (in which they are suddenly playing the parts assigned to them naturally and unquestioningly). The fact that these are characters defined solely by what's been written about them makes it interesting when they become befuddled by the gaps in their information (such as who is Rosencrantz and who is Guildenstern, since, in their Hamlet scenes, they are virtually interchangeable) and question exactly where it's coming from. The script is unbelievably good, filled with machine-gun dialogue that toys with the basic structure of language with zeal and wit; it poses some heady philosophical points wedged between almost incomprehensibly fast games of Questions between our heroes. Technically speaking, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a simplistic film: while a lot of the film is shot on location, the sets stand out when they do appear (particularly the boat set at the end of the film) as, well, sets- the film feels enclosed at times, like it's on a soundstage. Also, the few effects that pop up are far from convincing, but then, that's probably not the point (we see during the Tragedian's faux-Hamlet performance how even the most rudimentary effects can be effective). The cinematography is pretty decent, playing very naturalistically (firelight is the only noticeable source for any non-daylight); the compositions are also decent, sticking to standard two-shots and close-ups (it's actually quite proficient, considering that this is playwright Tom Stoppard's directorial debut); editing-wise, the use of juxtaposition is excellent, especially to show the jump between performance and "reality". Overall, it's sort of a bittersweet tale, which skirts the edge of tragedy and comedy at the end, but its very premise makes it impossible to feel too disheartened when the inevitable finally happens (after all, it's in the bloody TITLE- it shouldn't come as a big surprise), because, as the film establishes, neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern really have a life outside of the one Shakespeare created for them, and technically they are reborn each time someone watches the play/movie- which, considering the sharp, clever humor at work here, should be quite frequently. It's a thinking person's comedy, a self-referential exploration of the nature of life and death itself. That, and it's damn funny.