English 101, M-4 -- Strange Brew and Hamlet

Strange Brew and Ham(let); Post-Modern Canadian Bacon and Worse

Alexandra Wood, 1999

The film Strange Brew is constructed on thematic material drawn from Shakespeare's Hamlet: The Prince of Denmark, which is transformed through a pseudo Canadian mystic identity. The Hamlet material takes its form in parallels of events and psychological states, which are not reliant on continuities of character, place, and time. This discontinuous form of allusion introduces post-modern themes in conjunction with the self-reflexive introduction and conclusion to the film. This strong indication of post-modern material in a film of pseudo-Canadian content corresponds to Richard Gwyn's assertion that Canada is a post-modern state. Nonetheless, the aligning – within a post-modern context – of one of the mythic images of Canadian identity to a classic and near archetypal artwork is a reinforcement of the validity of Canadian self-exploration.

Strange Brew can be seen as a post-modern film both in film technique and theory. From the beginning of the film, Bob and Doug McKenzie remind the audience that this is just a film and that nothing is real. They start by introducing the film to the audience, talking to the camera, and reasserting the unreal nature of film. This sets the stage for the continued de-construction of what is real within the Canadian mindset. In Nationalism Without Walls, Richard Gwyn asserts that post-modernism “is about the end of structure, coherence, authority, hierarchy, and history, of general truths of all kind. All is relative; nothing is absolute” (Gwyn 246). In a manner which is in agreement with Gwyn's definition, Strange Brew de-constructs the plot of Hamlet, and confuses the traditional understanding of heroes, anti-heroes, and heroines. The film leaves these primary forms greatly altered. The end result is a state of multiplicity, where singular identity is misleading. This state is further emphasized by the 'improvised' inclusion of allusions to Shakespeare's Hamlet. Likewise, by aligning this post-modern format to myths of Canadian identity, Strange Brew brings the viewer's attention to the fact of multiplicity in Canada and demonstrates Gwyn's assertion of Canada as a post-modern state.

The resemblances of Strange Brew to Shakespeare's Hamlet can be seen in the sub-plot and the events surrounding most of the characters. Unlike Shakespeare's play, where Hamlet is the main character and everyone else is created around him, the characters of Strange Brew all reflect pieces of the characters of Hamlet and the events surrounding the prince. There is no single character who is simply a 'modernized' Hamlet, as the role is spread throughout the cast. The most obvious similarity is the name of Hamlet's uncle being reflect in that of Pamela's; Claudius and Claude are elided. Also, the character Pamela is one of the most closely linked to Hamlet, as it is she who is affected by and 'incestuous' marriage and is betrayed by her Uncle and Mother. This similarity is reflected in the phonetic similarities of the name Pamela to Hamlet. As in Hamlet, her father was murdered by her scheming Mother and Uncle; however, a twist of plot reveals that it was actually Brewmeister Smith who completed the murder. Unlike Hamlet, however, Pamela meets the ghost of her father – not through a meeting on the moors at night in the opening scenes – but toward the end of the film, in an arcade game, where he reveals to her the events that led to his death. It is the same arcade game that tells her about her Uncle's 'evil' use for her inherited beer company (or kingdom), Elsinore Beer, which is tellingly called “Elsinore Castle” in the original movie posters advertising the film [1].

Also, unlike Hamlet, Pamela is the only character not to be afflicted with madness; yet, just as in Hamlet the theme of madness or insanity is woven throughout the film. Everyone else in Strange Brew is either mad (in the asylum), or involved with people who are mad. Her uncle Claude, along with the evil scientist Brewmeister Smith, are using the beer company to hide a scheme whereby they plan to take over the world by poisoning the beer with a mind controlling chemical that causes everyone else's madness. They spend the movie 'trying it out' on recruits from the local insane asylum, along with Bob and Doub McKenzie.

In a superficial alignment to the Hamlet figure, Doug and Bob – although they appear to be the protagonists of the film – are not the typical heroes of a movie or play. They are not portrayed as the typical male hero; they are not strong, silent types who save the weaker female character, but are in fact very much the opposite and are often in need of saving. They also have no 'character' of their own in the formula of the Hamlet allusions, but represent a compilation of several characters, events, and psychological traumas from Hamlet. They represent Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. The character Ophelia, after being tyranised by her father (just as Bob and Doug are controlled by theirs) and affected by Hamlet's treatment of her, goes mad and drowns herself. While Bob and Doug only share parts of the Ophelia character, they do encompass parts of a stereotypical heroine. They constantly need rescuing, either by each other or someone else, and are dominated by their romantic and paternal relationships. Unlike Hamlet, Bob and Doug do not have an implied or prior relationship with Pamela, but they do reflect the unstable nature of Ophelia's character. There is no one moment where they lose their sanity, but instead they spend the entire film somewhat 'off balance.'

Moreover, in the drowning scene inside the van, Bob and Doug come to encompass Ophelia, Rosencratz and Guildenstern all at once. This scene echoes the drowning of Ophelia due to Hamlet; however, in Strange Brew it is the family of Pamela, and not herself, who try to murder Bob and Doug, just as the King (via Hamlet’s intervention) signs the death-warrant for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Subsequently, in a post-modern tradition, their death is not real. They are kept alive in the van by drinking beer. Elsinore beer, along with the fundamental characters of Bob and Doug McKenzie, constitutes the stereotypical Canadian culture seen in this film, or more specifically, the film’s myth of Canadian identity as beer-swilling and toque-wearing. This is another situation where the post-modern idea of the art work as artifice and surreal events become identical – in both duration and location – to the myth of Canadian identity.

Finally, the deaths of Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius, and Gertrude are compiled into one death in Strange Brew: that of Brewmeister Smith, who is killed by the ghost of Pamela’s father by being electrocuted. Unlike Hamlet, Pamela never takes and violent or vengeful acts against her Uncle. Pamela peacefully regains control of her company and hence avoids tragedy.

In a further development, the character Brewmeister Smith can be seen as the one who defines everyone else as Canadian. He embodies all that is evil and is the only foreigner in the film. The evil acts of the ‘Canadians,’ such as Claude’s, can be seen as less terrible because they are ‘us’ and are instigated by Smith (Pamela’s father was “already dead” when Claude killed him, after Smith murders him). The supposedly Canadian language (“eh” and “hoser”), donut addiction, and the beer swilling are the only other factors that define Bob, Doug, Pamela, and Claude as Canadian. Brewmeister Smith offers the ‘Other’ as a further definition of what a Canadian is not, and he thereby reinforces this particular myth of Canadian identity through a dialectic.

Canada as a post-modern state, in the manner that Gwyn asserts, is what allows this flexible definition of Canadian identity. Gwyn states that because our society contains many different cultures and since there is subsequently no single true Canadian identity, this state of multiplicity embodies the post-modern ideology. We have included this multiplicity as an essential part of our ‘culture,’ which may only be loosely defined as such, but may more accurately be called an ‘un-culture’ due to its resistance to narrowing into a single unity. The film Strange Brew incorporates these different types of Canadians and at the same time manages to poke fun at the pseudo-Canadian identity seen by foreigners. In a very real way, Brewmeister Smith represents that which gives us the pseudo-myths of Canadians, such as Bob and Doug, and which we ultimately use to create a state of multiplicity that is truly Canadian.

The end of the film shows Bob and Doug reviewing their ‘film’ over the credits. This reasserts the unreal nature of what the audience was viewing and highlights the self-reflexive nature of post-modernity, again linking myths of Canada to a state of multiplicity. The allusion to themes from Hamlet and the use of pseudo-Canadian culture, echo Gwyn’s statement that Canada is a post-modern state because “the multiple identities that are so central to postmodernist analysis existed here long before official multiculturalism” (246). This “mutable [and] plastic” (249) nature of Canadian identity allows for the discontinuous allusions to themes in Hamlet without the reliance on character, time, and place. The combination of post-modern ideology and the classic artwork Hamlet must be seen as reinforcing the validity of Canadian self-exploration.

Works Cited

Gwyn, Richard. Nationalism Without Walls. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996.

Strange Brew. Dir. Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. Perf. Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Max von Sydow. IMD, 1983.

End Notes:

[1] Poster from the movie release of Strange Brew. This title is above Max von Sydow (Brewmeister Smith) [back]:

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