Reviewed by Ian Forbes
Adapting Shakespeare for modern audiences while retaining the text is no small feat. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet found a devoted audience but I’m hard pressed to remember any truly shining examples within my lifetime (I liked R & J’s soundtrack and production design more than the film itself). Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus dragged on and on and acclaim for the actors seemed to be based on their intensity rather than effectiveness. I missed 2010’s The Tempest which I heard generally positive things about so maybe that’s another one in the win column.
Of course, there’s the gaggle of Kenneth Branagh-led productions and those are able to convey the Bard’s works well enough but none have grabbed my attention or particular affection. Moving away from keeping the language of Shakespeare intact, 10 Things I Hate About You, Warm Bodies, and Scotland, P.A. are about the most interesting adaptations I’ve seen, and the first two efforts are the only ones I’ve re-watched multiple times.
Well, Joss Whedon apparently had wanted to adapt Much Ado About Nothing for some time, abridging the text but keeping the Shakespearean language and syntax intact. So whilst on a break from post production on The Avengers, he gathered a large assortment of longtime acting collaborators, brought them to his house, and shot the entire production in just twelve days. TWELVE DAYS. Now that’s impressive to be sure but while I give kudos for the effort and ambition, slapping a shoot together in such a short time is bound to show, and it does so here.
(I’m going to assume you are attending or have graduated high school and are thus familiar with the basic story so insert your own more detailed plot synopsis here.)
Much of the camerawork and shot selection is lackluster. The choice to go black and white was a good one but as it was shot digitally in color and converted into b&w afterwards, it’s just not the same. There’s a muddiness to the look of it and while The Artist also shot in color and then converted the image to black and white, it’s clear the polish just wasn’t possible in this production. Some of the lighting is too harsh, some of the shadows too murky. Frankly, it’s all over the place.
Then there’s the manner in which the soliloquies are handled … well, rather poorly actually. Presenting a character talking to themselves is never easy (ask writer/director Richard Curtis who has a habit of doing so in many of his films; Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, etc.). Playing Benedick is Alexis Denisof, and as much fun as it was to watch him and Amy Acker (playing Beatrice) fall in love again so many years after Angel has left the airwaves, watching Denisof deliver a soliloquy is anything but natural.
Continuing to harp on the casting, for people like myself who have enjoyed Whedon’s television work for the most part (Dollhouse was abysmal), the great fun in watching this adaptation is seeing all the familiar faces. It’s clearly evident they enjoyed getting back together but it takes quite a bit of time for the production itself to pick up any steam. Not until the plot to bring Benedick and Beatrice together is hatched does the energy of the production swing into full gear.
Sean Maher’s portrayal of Don John lacks almost any emotion and comes off as very one note. Denisof’s strength has been in dry wit, rather than the playful kind required of Benedick. Clark Gregg stepped in as Leonato when Anthony Stewart Head couldn’t make the shoot but it came off much more like Agent Coulson from the Marvel movies than anything else. Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk fill the shoes of Dogberry and Verges, respectively, and inject some much needed levity into the back half of the feature but it would have been nice to have some more of that energy earlier in the film and the manner in which it was shot and acted simply didn’t oblige.
Hmm, I seem to be bad-mouthing the production heavily. Oddly enough, despite all of my reservations, I enjoyed the overall experience. Amy Acker’s portrayal of Beatrice is the most engaging (though why she looks like a Hollywood movie star from days of yore and everyone else seems cut from present day doesn’t make any sense). She is able to give the character the balance of wit and heartbreak lacking in many of the other main players.
I suppose the caveat I’d place on the film is that I spent a good deal of the time enjoying things BECAUSE of the actors Whedon had assembled to undertake production. I often saw them through the lens of their past roles and let nostalgia lift my spirits; very few managed to disappear into their characters well enough to make me confident this will work for the average audience member.
Being able to enjoy Whedon’s take on Much Ado About Nothing depends on some wildly divergent criteria. You may need to love the actors from their previous work as much as I do in order to forgive so many stale performances. You may need to recognize none of them and perhaps the characters will come through more clearly. You may need to be just that big of a Shakespeare fan. Failing to meet at least one of those criteria may seriously hamper your enjoyment. I’m happy to have seen this film but I think by now you get a clear picture of why I would be an ideal candidate for the task. You, however, may want to give it a quick ponder before heading out to a theater.
Much Ado About Nothing is rated PG-13 for some sexuality and brief drug use.
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