Sunday, June 23, 2013

Review: "Much Ado About Nothing"

Let's start by admitting that I have a special place in my heart for Joss Whedon.  He's a fairly unassuming guy who's proven to be pretty talented at writing heartwarming and funny shows that from time to time will stab you in the gut.  There's a saying among Whedon fans that if you ever meet him on the street you should never tell him who your favourite character is, because he will kill them.  I enjoy him because the thing that this unassuming guy has going for him, and the reason that his tropes continue to work (he has a few go-to resolutions that work almost every time) is that it's all in service to the story.  Story is King. All that aside I was notably apprehensive when I found out that he was going to be releasing a version of Much Ado About Nothing, often seen as Shakespeare's most successful comedy.  Then I started hearing good things about it.  Then I heard more good things and I started getting excited.

Done well, a Shakespeare adaptation can be magic.  1995's William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet (while it overlooked a good deal of the beautiful bawdiness of Mercutio) was a rousing adaptation of Shakespeare that made it relevant and exciting for a younger audience.  Admittedly I see the main thrust of that play a little differently now that I'm older but that doesn't make Baz Lurman's interpretation any less poignant or moving.  10 Things I Hate About You is a still very popular modernization of The Taming of the Shrew, another Shakespearean comedy which is often discussed in light of its more misogynistic tendencies.  It managed to modernize the plight of Katheryn and Bianca and make it relevant to a teenaged audience.  While the former adaptation stuck with the original language of Shakespeare, the latter eschewed it in favour of contemporary exchanges and this to its benefit considering the subject matter and perceived disparity towards women.  In my mind both adaptations proved successful (perhaps for different reasons), though each chose to focus on one particular aspect to update to their benefit.  I knew from prior reading that they had kept the Shakespearean language intact, I also knew that they had shot the movie in 12 days in Whedon's own house.  With all that in mind I sat down to watch Whedon's foray into Shakespeare and I was quite pleasantly surprised.

A hallmark of any Whedon production, the cast of this film is made up mostly of friends and cast members from previous productions, most notably Clark Gregg (of Avengers and the upcoming SHIELD tv series) and Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle).  That said, with the exception of one bit player I didn't feel that any of the actors were miscast in their roles.  Even Fran Kranz who plays Claudio, the young soldier of great acclaim, managed to carry off what I initially thought to be a role for which he was ill suited.  So too was Amy Acker a great addition to the cast in the role of Beatrice, a witty, charming, if a bit cynical young woman who is the niece of Leonato (Clark Gregg) and dearest cousin to Hero (played by Jillian Morgese), the object of Claudio's affection.  Her interplay with Benedick (Alexi Denisof) provides much of the wittier conversation in the play and serves as a merry distraction from what becomes (two thirds of the way through the film) a quite serious storyline between Claudio and Hero.  But as I mentioned at the outset, the most surprising performance was that of Clark Gregg, then unknown to me (other than from the Marvel movies), he was both witty and charming while being serious and demonstrating a depth of feeling that I had not seen him show in other roles.  I was quite delighted.

While the actors I feel were well cast, there were one or two directing choices that I'm not sure I loved.  Most notably during the exchange between Dogberry (Fillion) and Conrade (Riki Lindhome), there is a scene in which Conrade calls Dogberry an ass and he is so flummoxed that he begins to try to mitigate the insult by repeating it until it has lost meaning.  Here I feel Whedon may have given in to his (albeit justified) love for Nathan Fillion and allowed him to play the scene a little more slapstick than I believe was strictly necessary.  The scene is played so forcefully for laughter that I had to look it up to make sure it wasn't an ad-lib.  Sean Maher's Don Jon as well was-- I think-- perhaps plays a little too sinister with absolutely no room for dimension to the character. Was he wronged by his brother the prince and that's why he lashes out?  Is he wholly dismissed by his bother and therefore simply wants his attention?  I felt that with the depth other characters were given it was a little out of place (and out of character for Whedon) not to explore more fully the motivations behind Don Jon's villany.  Then again, it might just Sean Maher's acting.  I always saw Don Jon as a spoiled brat, immature and quick to anger, not the villainous adult he becomes here.  That aside, I'm nitpicking now as it's almost entirely inconsequential to the rest of the film.

What did work very well about the direction was the humour as it served to recapture the audience's attention just at the moment you feel you might begin to stray.  At less than two hours the film is quite short but with all the speaking that's packed in to it it does start to feel a little longer than I'd like around the two thirds mark.  Could he have gotten away with changing the language and telling the story with contemporary dialogue?  Yes.  It may have played a lot cleaner that way however here the Shakespearean language hasn't hurt him and in certain instances is much cleverer than anything I imagine Whedon would write himself.  Ultimately the Shakespearean language managed to hold its own and though there were a few moments where I felt the wit of a line here or there was lost when the situation was played for laughs, overall the intention and wit was evident and the language was clear.  Not only that but where there are songs written into the play Whedon & Co. have cleverly adapted them into music that works into the fabric of a party scene or a dramatic moment.  The music direction here is fantastic with what I believe to be a performance by Whedon's sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen (though uncredited) however the writing of the music itself is credited to Joss.

Most of the problem I had with the film are minor and (as I've mentioned above) entirely inconsequential to my enjoyment: the house is a little too small for the characters to not be tripping all over each other during the week they are in residence, and the maid outfits (though they serve the purpose of setting the maids apart) are a little dated and out of place.  But neither of these really detract from the story or overall success of the film.  As with the one-dimensional nature of Don Jon as a character, though these things could have been done better, they weren't done badly.  The film as a whole is quite a success and I would urge you to see it if you have any enjoyment of Shakespeare, enjoy comedy or just feel like something a little different.

My rating: 3.5 out of 4

1 comment:

  1. I forgot to mention the recent Coriolanus adaptation (which I loved)when we talked about modern adaptations above. Yes he made it a war film. Yes it totally worked.