Monday, July 1, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

By Joss Whedon

                Shot over the course of twelve days at Joss Whedon’s own Santa Monica home, Much Ado About Nothing captures the wit and merriment inherent to Shakespeare’s comedy.  Following two pairs of lovers (or potential lovers) over the course of less than a month, Shakespeare plays with mistaken identity and mischievous schemes, as well as the nature of marriage and love itself.  The two couples in the movie couldn’t be more different.  Beatrice and Benedick (both skillfully displaying a knack for wordplay) have a “battle of wit between them” far before the action takes place.  The two seem to be obsessed with one another before the show starts – and they continue to cut one another down upon meeting, mutually sharing that neither really believes in love or marriage.  The other couple, Claudio and Hero, are a wide-eyed and innocent young people who fall in love seemingly at first sight.  They have a sweet and easy romance, despite some attempts by outsiders to pull them apart.
                There is much good to be said of the film, which feels intimate, light, and fun.  It’s very humorous, often due to some excellent physical acting by the leads and several of the supporting characters as well.  The black and white photography is lovely and rich, working well with the source material to relay a classic sensibility that makes the dialogue work even in this modern context.  There were a few problems with the villains in the film, as playing the villainy and darker elements straight doesn’t quite play well in context, but this was a minor issue, and I was rarely distracted by it.  It’s an aptly funny adaptation of Shakespeare’s fantastic comedy, and I found myself laughing and smiling warmly throughout.

A strong *** out of ****

                I would like to know what led Whedon to embark on a project so dissimilar to his previous works.   Did he have a lifelong affinity for Shakespeare?  Did he feel like he needed to prove himself as a versatile cinematic talent?  Did he simply recognize that the dry wit of Shakespeare’s comedy aligns nicely with his own comic sensibilities?  Did he just really need a change of pace from CGI and senseless destruction?  Whatever the impetus, it is refreshing to see this move, and he proves to be a good fit to adapt this very funny play for the screen.
                The strength of the film is found in the performances, which provide knowingly couth, winking deliveries of Shakespeare’s fiercely witty wordplay.  I couldn’t help but recognize that these actors and actresses simply seemed to be having fun with the material, and it was a privilege to be let in on their process.  The film has the feel of something shown at a private gathering, made only for the benefit of close friends, and it was a warm feeling to be invited to celebrate Shakespeare’s amusing work alongside this creative crew.  You can simply tell they love the material and were excited to explore it together, and with us.  (This mutual affection for the process is, I think, also why people tend to love when actors on live shows “break” and try to suppress a smile – it is reassuring to think that actors actually enjoy what they do.)

A weak *** out of ****

                From what I have read, Whedon has always loved this particular play – it has always been his pet project.  That is the rumor anywho.  If I were to harbor a guess, I think it would be because it has the dry wit you mention, as well as the fact that the main character is a smart, strong, quite independent woman; a character Whedon has always been particularly drawn to.  I think, in that way, it translates well to a modern audience.  Such a witty, smart woman is a rarity for the silver screen even today, and I really liked that part of it.  And Beatrice is played wonderfully by Amy Acker.

Acker as Beatrice
                I think Acker’s performance is a revelation, and impressively captures the nuance of being both confident and unsure.  It, for me, was the strongest performance among many strong performances.
                Yet, while her character does translate well to a modern audience, not everything does.  Despite the film’s strengths, it is hard while watching to dismiss the fact that storytelling has changed since The Bard’s times.  We no longer passively accept the contrivance that a couple could fall in love on sight alone and be married within a week.  If this were to happen today, we would all be wise to caution these lovers to slow down!  While I recognize Shakespeare’s attention is not on the feasibility of his plot, or the wisdom therein, it proves to be a bit distracting for modern eyes.  And while it is hard to fault Whedon for faithfully carrying out Shakespeare’s vision, the modern context of the film makes it all seem a bit off.  As you said, the black and white cinematography somewhat helps, but even that cannot hide the archaic trope that romantic affection is so powerful a force that a man would duel his best friend over it, despite it not existing only hours prior.

                I think what saves this from being overly contrived for me is that it is presented that the couples had known each other previously, but only fallen in love quickly at a later time.  It’s more believable that way.  I didn’t have trouble with that so much, as the romances were a springboard to have spirited flirtation and feisty disputes.
How could you want to kill this jolly Claudio?
                I think, for me, the inconsistent part of the film is that *SPOILER* Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claudio, even though she knows Hero is alive and still seems to love Claudio, despite his rejection of her.  I feel like it would have worked better had it been more clearly a test of Benedick, not as something she seriously wanted.  In addition, Shakespeare completely drops that subplot later.  It’s all a bit odd.

                It is telling that Whedon added the backstory of Benedick and Beatrice to the story (in a short prologue and later flashback), even though it was not overtly stated in Shakespeare’s dialogue.  It seems that Whedon recognized certain weaknesses in the plotting and tried, in this instance, to provide some much needed rationale.
                Why he didn’t also do this with Beatrice’s request for a duel is beyond me, as I concur that this is the most out of place aspect of the story.  I like your idea of changing it so Beatrice is testing Benedick, but even then it would still make her rather petty.  What we actually see from Shakespeare’s play, and what was relayed in this film, was a spiteful and irrational twist – something unbefitting of a romance we had until that point enjoyed due to its screwball repartee.  If it weren’t literary blasphemy, I would say Whedon should have struck the scene from Shakespeare’s work altogether.  As you mentioned, the play seems to forget this happened as it progresses anyway, so it wouldn’t have been too disorienting.
                With that said, I did enjoy the complicated yarn spun by Ol’ Willy Shakes, filled with gripping webs of deception and miscommunication.  The wedding scene, in particular, was delightfully uncomfortable and built suspense effectively, with Whedon hitting his marks by allowing this tension to build slowly.  Despite any contrivances that led to that scenario, it nevertheless worked well in the heat of the moment.

Our bumbling security officers.
                I agree - the wedding scene was particularly tense.  Overall, in fact, I felt like the film had a good measure of tension, which added to the appeal of its contrasting humor.  I loved the silliness amongst the security officers, as its provision of comedic relief shows how seriously Shakespeare himself regarded the darker aspects of his script.

                I thought Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk’s security officers were priceless, providing comic relief in a film that didn’t necessarily need it, but definitely benefits.  The bumbling detective has been overdone so much in moviedom, and it was nice to see it done right here as a peripheral aspect of the plot.  And because their ineptitude adds further suspense to the plot, it is even more amusing.
                Of course, all these joys are what to expect from a “minor” work, even if the writer is a literary giant such as Shakespeare.  The focus of the film is, after all, on its clever plotting.  While the romantic aspects of the story never materialize to communicate much more than warm fluffy lovey doveys, and the villains are poorly drawn, its plotting is ingenious and banter is sublime.  For this critic, that is more than enough, especially in a time when formula plotting and recycled dialogue reign supreme.

Two-as-one rating: *** out of ****


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