Monday, July 8, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

Alternate Title:  See Above

One sentence synopsis:   Conspiracies abound to to unite and divide pairs of lovers during revelries at a villa owned by a mighty Lord.

Things Havoc liked:  There are a lot of stupidities floating around concerning the career of Joss Whedon. I've heard the most absurd of charges made against him, that he's a hack, or a sexist, or some kind of monster. Where he gets all this hate, I don't pretend to know. Perhaps it's mere backlash against his fans, or perhaps some people are still sore about Alien Resurrection. Whatever the groupthink position is, I've long been a great champion of Whedon's work, particularly after his incredible double-triumph last year of Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers. As such, when I discovered that he had decided to turn his hand to, of all things, Shakespeare, I was sufficiently intrigued to give it a shot. You don't want to know my other options.

Whedon, like Werner Herzog, Woody Allen, or Christopher Guest, is one of those directors who has a "stable" of actors he returns to again and again, and like those other directors, he does so for the best of reasons. As such we should not be surprised to find that the two main roles (arguably) of Benedict and Beatrice are here played by Whedonesque regulars Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker (of Buffy and Angel), both of whom, it must be admitted, turn in quite good performances as the two archetypical will-they-or-won't-they rivals/lovers, who spend the first third of the play sniping wittily at one another before spending the last two falling in love. These are not easy roles to play, as the plot demands that they be both sharp, witty people of certain dignity, and also that they fall for one of the most transparent matchmaking schemes in the history of romantic fiction. Yet Acker and Denisof, despite a bit of unnecessary slapstick during their "eavesdropping" scenes, manage to pull it off quite well, delivering the sense of a lengthy history between the two, studded with failed romances and rivalries. The sense is that these two know each other far too well, and so when the plot requires that they fall in love, they know just how to do it.

But this is hardly the end to Whedon's stable-casting, indeed practically every major role is filled by one of his pet actors. Among them are Firefly's Nathan Fillion and Sean Maher, playing respectively Dogberry the Constable (the fool of the play), and Don John the Bastard (the villain of the play). Fillion in particular is awesome (as always), mugging for the camera just enough while retaining a sense of injured pride and displaying manifest, gross incompetence at all times. Maher meanwhile makes the most of a bit part (once played by Keanu Reeves no less), quietly slimy and assholish largely for the sake of being assholish. Also from the stable is Clark Gregg, otherwise known as Agent Coulson, here playing Leonato, Lord of the Manor at which this all takes place. Gregg has a suitably fatherly (and semi-alcoholic) charm to him the whole way through, just the right note for the host of the mad party.

Whedon shot this film at his home in Southern California, shooting in black and white and modern dress, a decision I'll go into later. Most of the film is shot with handheld cameras, giving it a certain rustic, low budget feel, but never cheap, and the film is well-buttressed by a low-key score that knows when to shoulder the weight and when to leave the characters to act by themselves. Whedon's cinematographic instincts have never been in question, not even from his detractors, and so this movie, like all his others, is extremely well-shot, and gets the maximum amount of work from a limited space and set. There are even a few new ideas here that I (who am by no means a Shakespeare expert), noticed and liked enough to laugh at. One particularly problematical line that has bedeviled Much Ado since its inception (involving a racial steriotype no longer acceptable in today's era) is handled beautifully with a single bit of cinematographic winking that acknowledges the line as what it is in context.

Things Havoc disliked:  It's not fair to criticize a movie for its source material, but it's hard to separate the two in the case of a Shakespeare film, as we are not watching an adaptation rewritten by a screenwriter, but an actual performance of the play itself, laid down on celluloid as Shakespeare wrote it. And thus it's impossible to discuss this movie without mentioning that Much Ado About Nothing is a very silly play.

It was a silly play when Kenneth Branaugh did his famous adaptation in 1993, and it is a silly play now, and the problem with Whedon's version is that I don't think he realizes just how silly it is. Yes, I know, Shakespeare is timeless and his stories are the immortal truths of the human condition, etc. The fact remains that Much Ado About Nothing is a play about a number of noble Lords and important men arriving at the villa of an important grandee and immediately reverting to the behavior of 12-year-old girls, playing matchmaker with one another and giggling in a giddy fashion about who they can set up with who, all while the villain, recently captured in rebellion against his brother and liege lord, can think of no better revenge than tricking someone out of their wedding. It also involves such charmingly period concepts as one woman being wooed by proxy and "given" to another man, only to be accused of adultery on her wedding day and disowned by her own father. Perhaps this was normal behavior in the 16th Century, I don't know, but it is not normal behavior now, at least not in Southern California, and by setting the play in modern dress in a modern context (the actors are dressed in business suits and sunglasses, and packing guns), we are apparently expected to just forget this. And that's simply not easy when the actors in question are asking to be taken seriously.

On top of that, not all of Whedon's stable runs the race of their lives this time. Reed Diamond (Dollhouse) sounds and acts like an overgrown manchild in the role of Don Pedro, supposedly the most powerful Lord present, but one who instead acts like a spoiled eleven-year-old trying to buy friends with his new toys. But even he isn't as bad as Fran Kranz (Cabin in the Woods) and Jillian Morgheze, as Claudio and Hero, our two "lovers" who must be united by trickery, divided by more trickery, and then united again by yet further trickery. I loved Kranz in Cabin in the Woods, but he's grossly miscast here, coming across like a frightened teenager unsure of what to say to anyone, while Hero, a fairly thankless character to begin with, moves through the film like a wilting violet, content to let everyone else make all the decisions. Yes, this is probably as the characters were intended to be played, but if you're going to set the film in modern times, then you have some responsibility to set the film in a modern context as well.

Final thoughts:    I feel bad here, because while Much Ado About Nothing is ultimately a mediocre film, there isn't exactly a lot I can suggest to fix it. Branaugh's version, while no masterpiece, managed to elicit more emotional response by having better actors, period dress, and full, vibrant color, so perhaps there's that. The experience of viewing the movie is not unpleasant, and extreme aficionados of Shakespeare's comedies will probably appreciate the unusual fidelity that Whedon's script retains relative to the source material, but for the rest of us, there simply isn't that much here to warrant a look. Perhaps it's uncouth of me to criticize the movie for flaws that really reside in the play, but the reason that stipulation usually applies is because filmmakers are usually making a different product than the book or play the work is based on. When you make a decision to stick to the source this closely, then we have little else to go on but the source itself, and in this case, that source is not enough to maintain a modern film.

Final Score:  5.5/10

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