Sunday, June 23, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing (***1/2)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Joss Whedon


If Much Ado About Nothing does anything for the image of pop filmmaker Joss Whedon, it surely extends the range of fanboy-ism that is so synonymous with his image. Filmmakers have re-done Shakespeare often, and will probably continue to do so for many centuries, but very few times do these adaptations stick. Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time, but his words are so archaic that it sometimes seems impossible to perform them without drowning in staunch prestige. More often then not, films related to Shakespeare's themes (not straight recreations) develop better on the silver screen - see Ten Things I Hate About You's spin on Taming of the Shrew, or even West Side Story's modernization of Romeo and Juliet. Only Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet and Orson Welles' Othello ever felt like truly cinematic experiences while still committing to the Bard's words.* (see below) Whedon's Much Ado might be headed into that category.

Whedon doesn't change a word of the original play (though he does take quite a bit out, and thankfully so, cause the movie would be four hours long otherwise), but instead watches as he places them in the large but modest home of Senor Leonato (Clark Gregg), who is the govenor of Messina, as well as the daughter of Hero (Jillian Morgese) and the uncle of Beatrice (Amy Acker). They are visited by a merry group of post-war soldiers, led by Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) who's joined by the proper young Count Claudio (Fran Kranz) and the known lothario Benedick (Alexis Denisof). They are, of course, also forced to bring along Pedro's bastard brother John (Sean Maher), whose treason against Pedro has made him more of a prisoner and less of a companion to the rest of the group. All the major pawns of Shakespeare's classic are on the board, and Whedon's moves them around this ever-expanding home masterfully.

The set-up is very Shakespearean indeed: Benedick and Beatrice, still stinging from a faded fling in their past, cannot be around each other without squaring off with merciless witty jabs at each other's character. They both have sworn off ever getting married, using each other as the prime examples of what can go wrong with the opposite sex. Meanwhile, Benedick's companion Claudio is totally overcome with love when he lays eyes on the youthful beauty Hero. With the help of Pedro, Claudio is able to get Leonato's permission to take Hero's hand in marriage. The romantic feelings of the household grab hold as Pedro secretly schemes with Leonato, Claudio and Hero to make Benedick and Beatrice fall in love with each other. With a little encouragement from friends, Pedro becomes convinced that their blinding hatred for each other can quickly change to passion if the right buttons are pushed.

While Pedro schemes for love, his brother John starts scheming for heartbreak. With Claudio sitting so loftily in his brother's good graces, ruining the oncoming marriage would be delightful for John. John is joined by his two trusty hands, Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark), and all three start plotting of ways to make the joyous occasion tempestuous. The only line of security protecting all parties from the evil of John is the dim-witted officer Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) who orders around his lower officers with the confidence a newly-enrolled high schooler. Soon, all of the plans and double-crossing crash into each other, producing a sequence of events that are equal parts hilarious and serious; a laugh-a-minute comedy with serious meditations on honor and shame. Like all Shakespeare comedies, everything ends happily, but its the journey that's fascinating.

The sparseness of Whedon's adaptation is delightful, keeping all of the events contained to this one, sprawling Napa Valley mansion. Some of the logistics don't exactly connect. Pedro and his crew certainly don't act or dress like men who have just arrived from war, nor do the surroundings look like the Italian cities of Messina or Padua that are referenced in the play and in this film. But the filmmaking and performances are so modest that it seems almost nitpicky to point those kinds of things out. Adding to the whole aesthetic, Whedon shot the whole movie in a very homely black & white that fits even the color scheme of the costumes. All plot holes get filled quickly in the easiest way, but the movie's dialogue (the very best asset to the play) keeps the story moving so quickly that you don't have enough time to notice. If you do, you don't care.

Essentially all of the actors here are Whedon regulars. His two leads, Denisof and Acker, both take to the characters fluidly. Benedick and Beatrice are among the best of the Shakespeare comedies, seemingly impossible to screw up. Still though, Denisof is able to add his own level of charm to the already fertile humor within Benedick, and Acker adds a level of self-consciousness to Beatrice that I don't think I had ever seen before. With probably the third meatiest role, Fillion plays Dogberry as exactly what he is: pure comic relief. For a character that is filled with as much pride as Dogberry, it sure takes very little to play him, and Fillion is more than happy to play up the vanity and empty-headedness to earn the laughs that this character supplies the story. Much Ado is first and foremost a comedy, and the film's leads expertly make sure the audience knows this.

In my senior year of high school I was given the opportunity to direct the school play, and I chose Much Ado About Nothing. So needless to say, I should confess that all of the work I put into it (rehearsals, blocking, set and light design) has made me closer to this text than any other work by Mr. Bill Shakespeare. It's a bit fitting that I watched this film with the same waiting-for-my-favorite-part fanboyishness that most Whedon fans watched his other, more fantastical productions. He treats the material with a lot of lavishing loyalty, but not without sprucing it up with his own personal touches. This is probably my favorite Joss Whedon movie, though I think I've given enough evidence to show that I'm pretty biased. All of the comic and tragic notes are hit with accuracy and while I may be mourning the loss of the character of Antonio (and will probably be the only person to do so), I think this is a pretty terrific movie here.

*Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet never excited me any, but I know I'm in a pretty small minority with that opinion. Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet was terrific as a pop art standalone, but not exactly great as an adaptation. Later this year, a new film of the famed romantic tragedy will come out starring Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth as the star-crossed lovers. It seems primed with dull, overstuffed regality.

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