Thursday, June 20, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

Review by Pamela Zoslov

Your familiarity with Joss Whedon depends on your level of interest in creations like TOY STORY, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, THE AVENGERS, Angel, Firefly and other comics-based superhero and supernatural vehicles. Whedon, who calls himself a third-generation TV writer (his grandfather wrote for The Donna Reed Show, his father for The Golden Girls), is something of a renaissance man: screenwriter, director, producer, actor and composer. Lest you think his talents are confined to comic books and sci-fi, Whedon wants it known that he is also a devotee of Shakespeare. He regularly hosts Shakespeare soirées at his house, at which the young actors who populate his movies and TV shows gather for readings of the Bard's plays.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is the feature-film version of Whedon's house parties. This adaptation of Shakespeare's romantic comedy of deceptions, misunderstandings and the battle of the sexes was filmed over 12 days in and around Whedon's Santa Monica home, which stands in for the estate of Leonato, site of the proto-screwball comedy. The actors, Whedon regulars, wear contemporary clothes but speak Shakespeare's English, an effect that is initially discomfiting – the lines, spoken by contemporary young people standing around a modern kitchen, sound dubbed, like an Elizabethan version of WHAT'S UP TIGER LILLY? The ear eventually accustoms, and the marvelous language and the play's text carry things forward – but only so far.

The thing most people remember about Much Ado is its subplot, about the contentious romance between the witty, independent Beatrice and prideful confirmed bachelor Benedick. Their sexy animosity became the basis of all romantic comedies in the four centuries hence. Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) trade clever barbs (“I would my horse had the speed of your tongue”), and it's evident to all but themselves that they are meant for each other. Their friends conspire to trick them into admitting their love for each other.

Whedon, however, is more captivated by the play's darker element, the sadistic plot by the evil Don John (Sean Maher) – a sort of proto-Iago – to disrupt the marriage of Beatrice's sweet cousin Hero (Jillian Morgese) and callow Claudio (Fran Kranz) by causing him to doubt her chastity. According to Whedon, he was struck by the play's “element of debauchery” and decided to focus on the motif of dark sexuality. The comedy in this famous Shakespeare comedy gets short shrift – for example, Shakespeare's zany Dogberry, the malaprop-prone constable who unwittingly exposes the plot – is, as played by Nathan Fillion, merely a slightly awkward nonentity.

Jay Hunter's drab black-and-white cinematography, which employs “natural light” (meaning lots of backlighting and lens flare) complements Whedon's dark worldview, but not the play itself, considering that much of Much is about colorful things – outdoor contests, music, dance. (A more suitable approach is found in Kenneth Branagh's boisterous 1993 adaptation.) Whedon's home movie offers little for the eyes to feast upon. Ordinary outdoor settings (mostly Whedon's backyard) look awful in monochrome. And because Shakespeare is meant to be seen rather than just read or recited, the visuals are important, especially in the absence of top-level acting.  Releasing this handmade Shakespeare speaks of its maker's egotism, perhaps the result of being called a genius by his Comic-Con fanbase.

For younger viewers, this homemade, DIY quality may be a plus; this unexceptional film has received high praise on film-fan websites, notwithstanding that the actors (except Amy Acker, who emotes convincingly), come across as amateurish, saying the lines but not inhabiting the characters. Younger audiences may relish the experience of seeing people who look like themselves acting Shakespeare in 20th-century suits and ties that remind them of “Mad Men.”

While there is no one “right” way to do Shakespeare – it's been staged thousands of ways, in countless settings and translations – the success of any production depends on the skill involved. That's where this prosaic acting exercise falters. Even if you dislike Ken Branagh's lavish production style, for example, you have to admit it matters that he's a stage-trained actor with classical experience. Watching Whedon's cast, you marvel that they were able to memorize the lines. But that's setting the bar pretty low. (2 out of 4 stars)

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