Much Ado About Nothing (2013) – Joss Whedon

The story of Joss Whedon’s updating of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012) was well publicized. Whedon dreamt up the idea while his wife was coordinating the construction of their house; he liked the space as a location for a movie. He shot the movie over 12 days with many of his friends in his regular company including Sean Maher, Nathan Fillion and Clark Gregg while he was on a contractual vacation during the post-production of his The Avengers (2012). 

It’s a good story and, unfortunately, it’s a better story than it is a movie. It looks thrown together, rushed and shot on the cheap because it was, which might work for low-rent noirs like Detour (1941), low-rent exploitations like Duel (1971) or low-rent musicals like Little Shop of Horrors (1960), but Shakespeare’s most elegant comedy doesn’t take so well to being low-rent. There’s just a half-baked quality to it, born out of the casual nature of the project. This is, after all, a bunch of creatives getting together to put on a show, mainly for themselves. And while that keeps our interest enough to give the whole thing a steady propulsion, it is only a little better than sitting through vacation photos of your most interesting friend. I’m using my own hand against my heart in writing this because I’d like to encourage this type of filmmaking, which is creative and fresh and interesting, but it just doesn’t feel fully developed; instead of feeling spontaneous, it feels undercooked. The performances give the feeling that the actors were learning their lines between takes, which might work on The Avengers,but doesn’t do Shakespeare much justice. The audio is spotty in places and the music on the soundtrack and the editing are staples of TV movies, however, the script is quite good.

The story of love finding those those don’t want it stars Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker as the silver-tongued antagonists Benedick and Beatrice, a couple of cynics who can’t stand each other until they can and fall in furious love, making the play’s legacy a large and growing list of shallowly reductive romantic comedies based on the same premise. As Benedick and Beatrice fall in love in spite of their professed distaste for it (“When I said that I’d die as a bachelor, I just meant that I didn’t think I’d live until I got married,” Benedick bemoans as he feels it getting away from him), the young, sweet couple Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese) have their faith tested by the devious antics of Don John (Maher) who arranges for his own reasons a series of misunderstandings to make them question the other’s fidelity.

The movie updates the story to modern times, which is fine, but some of these sitcom-level mix-ups that could be straightened out with one simple conversation would have been hard to swallow in Shakespeare’s time when the stage was accepted as a place that didn’t fully correspond with actual human behavior, less so against the realism of a movie, especially in the age of cell phones (when people speak of letters, they point to emails on their Blackberries).

Because the writing is so great and the story so human, a warm and engaging quality permeates the whole thing, which means that it isn’t the best adaptation of the piece (Berlioz can make that claim) but it doesn’t embarrass the Bard. I get the impression, though, that the goal was to make a relatable, timely and relevant Shakespeare adaptation and it doesn’t pull that off. Part of the problem is that Whedon doesn’t fully trust the words, shoehorning awkward slapstick to punch up action that never gels, particularly in the handling of the low-comedy detective Dogberry (Fillion) and his men. What’s frustrating is that at times, Whedon’s ear is good, particularly in the best scene in the movie: Claudio and Hero’s first attempt at getting married. A furious Claudio, convinced that his bride-to-be is unfaithful, stands glaring at the altar. “You come hither, my lord, to marry this lady?” asks the priest. “No,” Claudio says, unsmiling. After an uncomfortable silence that Whedon deliciously milks, Leonato (Gregg), the father of the bride, lets out a tiny laugh. “To be married to her,” he says. “Friar, you come to marry her.” This entire scene, which devolves, fully brings about both the humor and agony of a public death of romance.

The grace of that scene returns only in flashes, though they justify the project’s existence. The rest doesn’t rise much higher than, at best, an admirable effort and, at worst, the best-written soap opera of all time.

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