Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing Movie Review

Sometimes as a great fan of Shakespeare, though certainly I am not a studied scholar of his work, I long for adaptations that get away from the stuffy theatrical tradition popularized by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. Though I have often found much to admire in Branagh’s work, it still fails to feel truly inspired or inspiring and instead comes across as an exercise in literary interpretation rather than a production of human emotion. But it is exactly that quality in Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing that I admire it so damn much and why I’m willing to call it the best Shakespeare adaptation committed to film.

This is not the version adapted and directed by a man who has made formal study of the work, nor is Whedon a Shakespearean actor now graduating to his own personal productions. He is, like me, a fan. He’s a man who recognizes the wonder and the genius and wants nothing more than to make the words come alive. Whedon allegedly used to conduct readings of Shakespeare at his home with friends and this personal project was born of that tradition. Shot on the fly while he was making The Avengers, it is all handheld digital camera work, location sets (at his own home in Santa Monica), and actors (most of whom are previous Whedon collaborators from “Buffy” to The Cabin in the Woods) who have a great facility with the language even as it isn’t always delivered in the most polished readings.

The whole production, set in contemporary California (rather than a centuries old Italy) is light and airy, completely fancy-free. Whedon’s original score, which includes a beautiful and sweet adaptation of the “Sigh No More” song from Act II scene 3, aides a great deal in lifting the spirits of the film as do the unpretentious performances. Alexis Denisof as Benedick is the one actor who forces the dialogue too much, but he redeems himself immeasurably by flitting and flopping around (in what I can only surmise is a little homage to the way it might be staged in a theater) in a wonderful bout of physical clown comedy as he overhears a conversation about Beatrice’s love for him. Watching his goofy comedic work, I kept thinking of a young Kevin Kline. The beard and the voice suggest Jason Lee. It’s sobering to be reminded that a solid convention of the romantic comedy genre – that of the man and woman who grate on one another until they finally succumb to the mutual love that everyone around them had long witnessed – has existed no less than five centuries. It’s all too easy to presume it was a creation of the cinema of the 20th century.

As Beatrice, Amy Acker brings strength, with, and beauty. Jillian Mongese is a fair and sweet Hero, lover of the youthful love struck Claudio, played by Fran Kranz, previously known to me only as the stoner in The Cabin in the Woods.Sean Maher sneers well enough as Don John, although a wooden mannequin would have been a step above Keanu Reeves, who was way out of his depth in the role twenty years ago. Nathan Fillion has big shoes to fill in the small role of Dogberry, whose tripping tongue and aspiration to a higher social class make him one of the play’s most important sources of comedy. Clark Gregg, whom I could watch in just about anything, plays the elder nobleman Leonato. But for me the true standout was Reed Diamond as Don Pedro. It is so rare to see an actor 100 percent at ease with the language of Shakespeare – granted, Much Ado About Nothing is in prose – but Diamond achieved it.

Though the story and plot are simplistic, both by modern and Shakespeare standards, it’s the dialogue that makes it magical. Much Ado About Nothing may not be written in verse, but it’s no less poetic because of it. This little gem of a movie may not go down in history as one of the great screen adaptations of the Bard’s work, but it should be long remembered regardless, if not for its craft and fealty to academia, then for its joy and pleasure.

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