Much Ado About Nothing
I’m beginning to think Joss Whedon’s lustre is wearing off, just as he’s attained the popularity he has always yearned. I though Avengers was great enough, like everyone else, but where once I revelled in his snappy self-aware dialogue I’m now more likely to wince at the stark truth that every one of his characters sounds the same. Much Ado fortunately doesn’t have that problem, since it’s adapted from the Bard, but I suspect the ever-falsely-modest one was tempted to “punch-up“ some of Shakey’s lesser dialogue.
I say suspect, as I could only tolerate a minute of Joss’ smug commentary before switching it off. I think it was around the time of Dollhouse that I started to get wise to his limitations; he’d already come up short with the last couple of seasons of Buffy, but the final year of Angel (which he unceremoniously took the reins of) might be my favourite of anything he’s done. And I was there urging him on to success during the wilderness period where he couldn’t seem to catch a break, either in movies or TV. About the same time J J Abrams was going from strength to ubiquitous strength. But Much Ado might be the point where I can no see beyond his personality/voice to appreciate the good things he’s doing.
I was on guard from the opening credits, where it becomes clear Whedon intends to add maestro to his all-round entertainer status. Next he’ll be doing a one-man Hamlet to a legion of adoring Whedonites. Or Browntrousers, as a certain tranche are called. While I’m sure many will buy into the self-aggrandising spiel that Much Ado, filmed at Whedon’s house as a “break” from the big budget stress of Avengers with just some of his pals, was a warm-hearted recharging of batteries, I can’t help see it as an entirely cynical “Look at me!” enterprise. Joss can do a micro-budget arty home movie and tackle Shakespeare better than anyone all in one weekend! (I know, it took him 12 days, but doesn’t it just scream talent?) He even makes multi-media magic in his sleep, this man!
Credit to Whedon, though, for translating the play in an accessible and comprehensible form. I might be churlish and note that Sir Ken managed to do the same thing 20 years ago (is it that long?) His version feels a bit more random that Whedon’s, thanks in main to his eclectic casting, but he also scores more decisively by filming in Italy. There’s a warmth and vibrancy to both his setting and the delivery. In contrast, the black and white photography employed by Whedon makes the piece feel unnecessarily subdued. This, and the contemporary setting, serves to emphasise what doesn’t work rather than what does.
So, while the dramatics and reflections on love, both genuine and idealistic, resound capably, the differences in the sexual mores and attitudes of Shakespeare’s time are more glaring. And the comedy generally doesn’t quite have the zest one might expect. Whedon also manages to bungle the “death” of Hero, staging the moment and its repercussions unconvincingly; generally the “play” of fakery and mistaken identity doesn’t work as well as it should due to Whedon’s chosen setting.
Because the cinematography seems like an affectation for budgetary reasons (everything looks a bit classier) rather than motivated artistically, and because it really is home made, there’s a sense of a polished student or amateur dramatics project rather than a really sharp interpretation of the play in its own right. The shortcomings of the make-do setting are often very evident, such that the ways Whedon thinks around his chez (camera placements, eavesdropping on others’ conversations) draw attention to themselves rather than flow seamlessly. And I’m saying no to the musical interludes.
But the director’s troupe of thespians is mostly great. Leading the way are Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker as Benedick and Beatrice, both of whom deftly portray their characters’ cynicism and thence burgeoning love for each other. And both of whom are fine physical comedians; Denisof attempting to impress Acker by performing push-ups, and Acker falling downstairs while attempting to sneak a listen, capture the sense of fun missing elsewhere. Whedon elaborates on the implication that these two had a history with the opening post-coital scene, adding some immediate and well-judged tension.
Reed Diamond, always impressive in a low key way, from Homicide: Life on the Street going forward, makes a relaxed and naturalistic Don Pedro, while Clark Gregg is sparkling as Leonato (replacing an unavailable Anthony Head). Whedon also uses some of his nerdsters well; Fran Kanz’s Claudio is besotted with Jilliam Morgese’s Hero and proves surprisingly effective when he believes she has cheated on him. Tom Lenk appears as Dogberry’s deputy Verges (Fillion and Lenk have a nice rapport going on). Much has been said of much-loved Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, but I have to admit I found him distracting for all the wrong reasons. I haven’t watched Castle since the second season, so when I first laid eyes on him I puzzled over why he was wearing a fat suit. And then I became preoccupied by how it was he got so big.
Much Ado is good fun, and no doubt it will take its place as an aid to school kids forced to study one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays, but it does smell strongly of Whedon showing off as he adds another feather to his cap. Well-done Joss; you “get” Shakespeare. It’s his versatile performers who really impress, given a chance to show off their chops. They rise to the occasion.