Early in John Madden's good-natured romantic comedy "Shakespeare in Love," the eponymous Elizabethan bard (Joseph Fiennes), tormented by writer's block, sets aside a ceramic coffee mug when local theater manager Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) drops by to ask how his new play is coming along. The mug has "A Present from Stratford on Avon" printed on it. That groaner is probably the worst of the dumb, goofy schtick littered throughout this film, although there's a moment, when the characters pile into a tavern and you can overhear someone on the soundtrack reciting a list of specials ("roast pig with a juniper berry sauce on a bed of ... "), that comes pretty close. The movie has a smattering of bookishly clever bits as well, most of which are probably the handiwork of Tom Stoppard, who did a rewrite on Marc Norman's original script. The nasty, squinty little boy who likes to feed live mice to stray cats and describes his idea of great theater as "plenty of blood" turns out to be John Webster, who will become the author of the Jacobean gorefest "The Duchess of Malfi." A preacher denouncing the theater in London's streets subliminally supplies some of the best lines in the play Shakespeare is writing throughout the film, "Romeo and Juliet." Mostly, though, "Shakespeare in Love" is a corny, old-fashioned backstage farce, a lot like the kind of movie that would star Joan Blondell and John Barrymore in the 1930s.
Unable to finish his new comedy, "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter," the up-and-coming young playwright wallows in a picturesque funk (and puffy shirt), yearning for a new muse. Meanwhile, Henslowe appeases a brutal loan shark by cutting him in on the new production, so if Will doesn't produce, his boss could wind up minus an ear or two. Furthermore, all of Henslowe's best actors are out on the road trying to rustle up funds. Then there's the rival theater owned by the legendary actor Richard Burbage, who has the town's finest playwright, Christopher Marlowe, on contract, but wouldn't mind stealing Will away as well.
Will's muse arrives in the person of Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), an (excessively) fictional maiden of modest name and extravagant fortune who thrills to the theater and decides to disguise herself as a boy in order to audition for a part in Shakespeare's new play. Her parents intend to marry her off to one Lord Wessex (Colin Firth, reprising the uptight sourpuss role that made him a heartthrob in the BBC's most recent version of "Pride and Prejudice"), who plans to take his bride to Virginia. Will spots Viola at a dance, is smitten, eventually figures out that she's the "boy" actor cast as Romeo, wins her heart and, inspired by true love, writes his first great play.
Fiennes -- a lanky, doe-eyed dreamboat -- seems a perfect match with Paltrow. Both are handsome, competent actors of no particularly distinctive charisma or talent. Other, more appealing character actors appear in minor, limited roles: Judi Dench as a cranky Queen Elizabeth, Rupert Everett as Marlowe and Antony Sher (he played Disraeli in "Mrs. Brown"), wasted, as Will's "therapist," arching his marvelous eyebrows at Will's litany of unwittingly Freudian metaphors for his writer's block. Such dopey anachronistic humor eventually gives way to a pleasant, if very familiar, package of hoary showbiz jokes -- vain actors, envious writers, stage-struck investors, scheming rivals, mistaken identities, last-minute disasters and fortuitous substitutions.
Madden clearly wants the movie to feel like one of Shakespeare's sunny, mature comedies -- a bit of melodrama, a few clowns, some disguises, a touch of philosophy, some bawdy jokes, all wrapped around a romance -- a grab bag of whimsies transformed by the bard's uncanny alchemy into something sublime. Of course, not even Stoppard is Shakespeare, and the end result resembles one of Neil Simon's middlebrow romps more than it does "As You Like It." Veins of Shakespeare's poetry run through the screenplay, and they deliver occasional jolts of genius, heady and rich, that tend to dull the surrounding prose. Likewise (to my own enduring surprise) Ben Affleck, playing the famous Elizabethan actor Ned Alleyn, strides into the beleaguered theater company halfway through the film like a godling cast among mortals. He's so commanding a presence, such a delight to watch, that the rest of the perfectly fine performers get perceptibly drabber in his company. That, you think with a start, is a movie star. Unfortunately, it's the only entirely unexpected thing about "Shakespeare in Love."