“Much Ado About Nothing”
Starring: Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Reed Diamond, Sean Maher, Jillian Morgese, Tom Lenk
Rating: PG-13, for sensuality, subtle sexual candor and fleeting drug use
Eccentric update of the Bard’s romantic comedy is both witty and funny
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Fred and Wesley finally got back together, which is pretty cool.
And while the circumstances are rather unusual, they’re no less delightful.
Most filmmakers, after completing principal photography on a massive, gazillion-dollar project, unwind prior to the next step — assembling the director’s cut — by taking calm vacations … anything but film-related.
Joss Whedon isn’t most people. Prior to putting the finishing touches on “The Avengers” — last year’s wildly successful superhero summit meeting — he filled the in-between time by staging an intimate, micro-budget movie at his own Los Angeles home. And, as genre geeks know, when Whedon mounts such a project, he always engages the close friends who’ve become one of Hollywood’s most loyal repertoire companies.
In this case, a 12-day shoot (!) yielded one of the most unusual interpretations of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” ever to hit cinema screens. Lensed in glorious, mood-enhancing black-and-white by cinematographer Jay Hunter, this modern-dress staging nonetheless employs the Bard’s original dialogue — condensed and occasionally tweaked by Whedon — and features faces well-recognized from his various television projects.
Yes, kids; that means “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Firefly” and “Dollhouse.”
Thus, my somewhat cryptic opening sentence can be explained by the casting of Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker — Wesley Wyndam-Price and Winifred “Fred” Burke, respectively, on “Angel” — as Benedick and Beatrice.
Lest you roll eyebrows over the reflexive accusation that Whedon has unleashed a self-indulgent vanity production, well, yes, that’s certainly true. But who can complain, when the results are this entertaining?
To be sure, the initial disconnect is jarring. The setting, clothing and technology clearly are 21st century, which is at odds with the flowery Shakespearean dialogue. The acting style throughout is a bit ostentatious and overly mannered, the performers occasionally mugging for the camera the way a stage actor would pause for a laugh from the audience.
But that “settling in” period can be true of any Shakespeare production, even those that are rigorously authentic. Fifteen or 20 minutes into this film, everything starts to look and sound natural, at which point you’ll simply enjoy the richly contrived romantic entanglements present in one of Shakespeare’s most appealing comedies.
The core plot is fairly simple: Leonato (Clark Gregg), governor of Messina, plays host to his good friend Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), who has just quashed a rebellion by his villainous brother, Don John (Sean Maher). Although the latter and his two accomplices — Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) and Conrade (Riki Lindhome) — arrive in handcuffs, they’re allowed freedom of movement during this visit, as a gesture of kindness. (Big mistake!)
Don Pedro is accompanied by two faithful officers: Benedick and the younger, somewhat impetuous Claudio (Fran Kranz). The latter immediately falls head-over-heels in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), and she with him.
Benedick, in turn, has something of an on-again/off-again relationship with Leonato’s niece, Beatrice. They spar verbally in the rich, earthy and often scaldingly pointed manner of “estranged” Shakespearean lovers in numerous plays. T’would be gross understatement to mention that Denisof and Acker thoroughly enjoy hacking at each other, particularly as the exchanges become more deliciously nasty.
Leonato, Don Pedro, Claudio and Hero concoct a plan to cut past this nonsense and get Benedick and Beatrice to acknowledge their mutual fondness.
But this would mean two happy couples, which is far more than the evil Don John can tolerate. He therefore engages his own sinister scheme to sever both relationships, and if the residual fallout should destroy his brother’s reputation … well, so much the better.
Production designers Cindy Chao and Michele Yu make excellent use of the spacious outdoor and indoor settings, and Whedon also draws additional chuckles from the incongruities of modern behavior. As one example, Denisof rambles through one of Benedick’s tormented soliloquies — questioning his possible responses to Beatrice’s behavior — while jogging up and down the concrete stairs that lead up to the estate swimming pool (an intriguing visual in its own right).
The most fun, however, comes when first Benedick and then Beatrice, in turn, are tricked into believing that they’re “accidentally” overhearing telling conversations by Leonato, Don Pedro, Claudio and Hero. Denisof’s attempt to conceal himself in the back yard, moving from one window to the next, is simply priceless; Acker’s body-bruising effort to hide within the kitchen is equally hilarious.
On a more serious level, the degree to which we’ve bought into the story — no matter how grandiloquent the speech and mannerisms — can be measured by our reaction to the moment when, as Hero is betrayed in the worst possible way for a woman, her own father shuns her. Gregg, until now a genial host and doting parent, transforms into a beast whose fury is shocking; we feel his wrath like a physical blow.
Thankfully, even such dire moments are offset by lighter fare. Nathan Fillion supplies pure comic relief as the bumbling, word-mangling Dogberry, a total idiot police officer who stumbles into this case entirely by accident, and then fails to grasp the significance of the evidence he helps uncover. (Dogberry is too agitated over having been called an ass by the contemptuous Conrade.)
Fillion and Tom Lenk, playing Dogberry’s partner Verges, also have plenty of fun lampooning modern TV cop show clichés, down to the unnecessary sunglasses.
Denisof and Acker get most of the best lines — and plot contrivances — and therefore wind up with more screen time during which to strut their stuff. But much of the cast is equally memorable, no matter what size the role. Morgese is appropriately winsome and delicate as the fair Hero, which is essential if we’re to believe her reaction to the foul accusation from those she has trusted. (We must remember that Shakespearean women, no matter how spirited their tongues, can have their lives ruined by unscrupulous men.)
Kranz is suitably earnest — and just naïve enough — as the smitten Claudio. Kranz has a similarly powerful moment when his character is enraged by a perceived betrayal: Again, the moment is breathtaking for its unexpected intensity.
Maher narrows his gaze quite convincingly as the vile Don John, who visibly revels in his own malevolence: a guy who loves being wicked for its own sake. (And he was such a nice guy on TV’s “Firefly.” Go figure.)
My overall pleasure notwithstanding, I suspect this film will be embraced solely by Shakespeare buffs and Whedon’s devoted fan base. I can’t imagine mainstream audiences getting on board, particularly during summer’s bombastic silly season. Indeed, quite a few folks departed midway through Monday evening’s Sacramento preview. (Their loss.)
OK, so maybe Whedon did make a film mostly for himself and his friends. It could be argued, though, that this is the first rule of art: Satisfy yourself, and hope the rest of the world catches on. This “Much Ado” may be an odd Shakespearean duck, but I’ll happily watch it again: always my most essential movie criteria.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com