Monday, June 24, 2013

"Much Ado About Nothing" is really something


directed by Joss Whedon
starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion, Jillian Morgese, Fran Kranz, Reed Diamond, Sean Maher

Who knew Joss Whedon and Shakespearean comedy would be such a good fit?

In retrospect, it's no surprise. Whedon’s known for his ability to create lively, self-contained worlds out of ensembles of disparate characters, and he likes his characters quippy and slightly irreverent. That makes him a perfect match for everyone’s favorite tale of warring wits who fall in love while a sinister outsider threatens to disrupt their community. It helps that he’s even got his own band of unofficial Joss Whedon Players—actors he likes to cast in his shows—and in fact it’s from them that the germ of this tiny, charmingly off-the-cuff production first sprang. The back story’s almost as good as the film itself: Whedon, who reportedly hosts periodic Shakespeare readings just for fun, was taking a much-needed break from post-production of “The Avengers” when he decided to spend his down time making a shoestring black-and-white film version of Much Ado About Nothing with his best go-to actors/readers. The film was shot in less than two weeks at Whedon’s house in Santa Monica and kept on the super-secret downlow until it was completed.

Yes, that’s Joss Whedon’s idea of a “break.” More of a creative recharging, really, and it shows in the irrepressible sense of breezy fun that pervades the entire film. Maybe because we never really leave Whedon’s (very inviting) home, maybe because of the modern-day cocktail attire and the abundance of wine and cocktails being quaffed at all hours, the whole thing feels like an extended, boozy party where all the conversation happens to be in Shakespearean English, presided over by an unusually genial and twinkly-eyed Leonato (Clark Gregg, a/k/a Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and a dishy Don Pedro (Reed Diamond).

Which is not to suggest that the actors aren’t taking their roles seriously, because in fact they are taking very seriously their mission to entertain and engage us. And they succeed brilliantly, especially when it comes to the most beloved part of the play—tart-tongued Beatrice and Benedick, tricked by their friends into falling for each other. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are a treat as the lovers “too wise to woo peaceably,” exhibiting not only great chemistry but a fine sense of physical comedy, reminding us that Much Ado just may have been the first true screwball comedy. Whedon also makes it explicitly clear right at the outset that this Beatrice and Benedick have history, an interpretation that gives an extra edge to their sparring.

But how do Whedon et al. handle the darker elements of the play – namely, the main plot involving Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Jillian Morgese), her noodling suitor Claudio (Fran Kranz), and the malignant scheming of villainous Don John (Sean Maher) to drive them apart and break up the whole happy party by tarnishing Hero’s honor?

With a light touch, as it turns out, something more than a shrug but less than a full exploration of the play’s more troubling undertones. It’s a tough balancing act for any production, since few audiences enjoy being reminded that both the Beatrice-Benedick and Hero-Claudio plots turn on conspiracy to deceive and a lover’s willingness to believe what he at some level wants to believe, however flimsy the evidence. Much Ado About Nothing isn’t considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” but for a modern audience it almost should be. After all, the central crisis of the play revolves around whether a young woman is chaste, and when it’s falsely inferred that she’s not, she suffers terribly in a way that’s never really satisfactorily remedied.

Whedon doesn’t exactly gloss over the cruelty to Hero by the very men who are supposed to love her (though I think he does excise a few of the lines that make Claudio and Don Pedro seem like especially callous assholes). But he also doesn’t really address the discomfort that modern audiences might feel in seeing a modern-looking Hero happily take back the man who was cold-blooded enough to slut-shame her in public based on the flimsiest of evidence. Nor does Whedon try to flesh out the motives of Don John, one of the flattest villains in the Shakespearean canon, who seems to exist simply to be evil—though Maher does invest the role with a surprisingly potent aura of menace. (Somewhat distractingly, the film makes one of his henchmen, Conrad, his female sex partner, without changing any of the references to Conrad as a male; why not simply make him a boy toy rather than a girl?)

Yet none of this ends up mattering much, as the romantic and comic elements remain fully in control of this charmed universe. On the comic end, Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk offer rather subdued drollery as those unlikely agents of justice, Dogberry and Verges, but the approach works for those of us who find a little Dogberry and Verges go a long way. And even without them, there’s plenty of merriment, much of it owing to the sly visual gags sprinkled throughout the movie—from Benedick pontificating on male independence while seated amid children’s toys to the hilarious camera response to Claudio’s assurance, near the play’s denouement, that he will marry Leonato’s unseen daughter even “were she a Ethiope.” It’s touches like these that make Much Ado as delightful as it was meant to be.

Finally, a word of advice to those who hold the glorious 1993 Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson “Much Ado” close to their hearts: that’s no reason you can’t love this one, too! It’s simply a different take – more casual, modest, and scaled-down than Branagh’s lush, star-studded Tuscan production, but no less enjoyable for that. Light rather than rich, effervescent rather than exuberant, it’s perfect Shakespeare for a summer evening.



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