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Much Ado About Nothing Review: Shakespeare in Like

By Daniel Carlson | Film Reviews | June 7, 2013 | Comments ()


much-ado-review.jpg

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing succeeds to the degree you're willing to accept its genial "Let's put on a show" vibe. Shakespeare's play is famous for its wit and romance, and Whedon's skills with both make him a nice fit for the material, but as an actual film, the final product is only somewhat successful. Whedon shot the film in under two weeks at his house and employed a stable of actors he's used several times over in various TV and film projects, and there's no doubt he's got a love for the play. But the film's execution raises a number of questions that Whedon can't, or won't, answer. The action is updated to the present day yet the language is the same as it was 400 years ago. The logistical reasons are clear -- it's cheaper to have your cast wear regular clothes and talk Elizabethan than the other way around -- but the narrative ones are never addressed. Similarly, while they play's conceits could be justified in its original setting, it's less clear in the film why, say, the villain is allowed to spend so much time milling about with people who have openly avowed their distrust of him. Whedon makes a few nods here and there to modern life (characters have cell phones and luxury sedans), but beyond that, he doesn't so much update the story as exhume it, pulling it from the tomb of history and dragging it around a Santa Monica estate. It's a worthy experiment, with all the tension that entails.

The story, set at the home of the wealthy Leonato (Clark Gregg), revolves around three interwoven plots: the bickering anti-courtship between Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), who are tricked into professing their secret love for each other; the youthful romance of Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese); and the interfering machinations of Don John (Sean Maher), who seeks to disrupt the happiness of those around him for no reason other than his own general boredom. In one of the film's glitchy moments, John is introduced when he steps out of a car with the rest of the arrival party and we see he's handcuffed. They cut him free, though, and move on with the action. His deeds, whatever they may have been, are never explained, and we never get a good reason for why he's in the mix. It's John's schemes that drive much of the narrative's drama -- he's resolutely determined to plant seeds of doubt and hate in the minds of the young lovers -- yet Whedon never quite finds a way to sell John's villainy as anything other than contrivance. A huge part of this is Maher's performance, which is as plastic and unyielding as anything he did on Whedon's "Firefly" or its follow-up Serenity. But part of it also feels like what happens when you're so close to the source material, so in love with your memories of it, that you can't quite see what might not work. Whedon has far more success with the rest of the film, meaning the Claudio-Hero moments when John's not around and every bit of the Benedick-Beatrice story line. Whedon could probably have made a short film that was just the latter, with Denisof and Acker and the supporting players, and not lost a step.

The love-hate-love beats of Benedick and Beatrice's play out perfectly thanks to the superb casting of Denisof and Acker. Breathing life into Shakespeare's words is notoriously difficult for any actor, and not everyone on screen here can get away with it. (Morgese's Hero, for instance, rattles off her dialogue in a mealy monotone stripped of almost all inflection.) Yet Denisof is wonderful as the swaggering man made humble and even awkward by the realization that he has feelings for the woman he's long declared an enemy, and Acker is equally stunning, moving from prickly to vulnerable and back again as she and Denisof circle each other. Theirs is the story that gets the only real addition to the narrative, in the form of a wordless opening scene that shows Benedick dressing in Beatrice's room early one morning and slipping out without saying goodbye. They mold Shakespeare's language with their bodies, never overdoing it, always believable, always understandable, always connecting.

The rest of the cast falls at different places along the spectrum, with Denisof and Acker at one end and Maher at the unfortunate other. (Admittedly, he's better than Keanu Reeves was in the same role in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film version, but this seems the meanest praise possible.) As Don Pedro, the prince who's mostly running the show, Reed Diamond is enjoyable and believable. Kranz is a nice fit for Claudio, too, bringing the right mix of sweetness and occasional jealous anger. Nathan Fillion is a standout, though, as Dogberry, a constable oblivious to his constant misjudgments and malapropisms. He nails the deadpan humor of the part so well that you realize just how sluggish everyone around him has been. Again, that's the film as a whole: a collection of parts, some of which work better than others, and some of which don't quite know how to fit. The same issue plagues the photography, which is a soupy black-and-white meant to convey elegance but that often simply feels like an affectation meant to hide the pedestrian nature of some of the performances.

It's telling that, peripheral touches aside, the only new or "updated" moment comes with that opening scene that lets us know what Benedick and Beatrice once briefly meant to each other, and that will provide a perfect set-up for what's to come. It's the kind of believable moment that shows Whedon realizing that adaptations like his will have to bend the book's spine a little if they want to stand on their own. The moment sticks out even more when weighted against moments in the text where, say, a woman wishes to be a man so she could take action against those who've wronged her, or in which people are courted and traded among marriage partners like baseball cards. It's only in the heat of certain moments like professions of love and forgiveness that Whedon finally connects the specificity of a classical text with the universality of the emotions involved. Put another way: Whedon puts on a nice play, but he's at his best when he remembers to just tell a story.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • Mrs. Julien

    This review really brought out the dramaturges, eh?

    "Breathing life into Shakespeare’s words is notoriously difficult for any
    actor, and not everyone on screen here can get away with it
    "

    Actually, speaking as a drama student (during the early Cretaceous), I found the words provide something to lean on. You can trust the text because it's so good. You just need to understand what you are saying. The real issue is range.

    I love the idea of the opening. Doesn't Beatrice say "I know you of old" at one point. It's a film, you show that establishing shot and you frame everything successfully.

  • Brittany

    I had a much longer comment but Disqus ate it so here we go again.

    Shakespeare's plays can be re-set in any location and at any point in time. Every production wants to highlight certain themes, showcase aspects of character or a key performance, and capture a specific tone, and re-setting the play can help you achieve this.

    But the script has to be adapted to suit its new context. Shakespeare's plays can and should be re-interpreted, re-staged, and cut to create the narrative you want performed. That narrative will only triumph if it commits to its context and
    that context includes the time, location, and the physical space where
    the actors perform.

    One of the qualities that makes Shakespeare so special is that his plays are malleable and capable of withstanding a fair amount of script tinkering to achieve a certain effect and yet are recognisable as and faithful to themselves. In order to succeed you have to make Shakespeare your own.

    And that was the point I think Dan was trying to make (Dan, correct me if I'm wrong).

  • Alexis Denisof might be the most lucky man alive. For much of his career he's gotten to act along side Amy Acker, sometimes as a love interest. And he married Alyson Hannigan. He could probably make a fortune selling his sperm or being a mentor to young men who want to try and date the most adorable women in the world.

  • Pentadactyl

    A) Glad the Denisof and Acker scenes are good b/c that's honestly the aspect I'm most interested in.

    B) Most of the problems seem to be tied to the source material, including the one-dimensionality of Don John (illegitimate children are evil was pretty much the only idea there), Hero's utter lack of personality (from what I remember Benedick responds to Claudio professing his love for with essentially 'Really? Her?!') , the stupidity of all characters involved. If it had been an adaptation, I'd complain about it not being altered to make sense. But since they're reading the original lines, that's unavoidable, I think.

    C) Never noticed Maher was a less than great actor. But that's true of a lot of actors on Whedon shows. That I don't notice they suck until I seem them on something else.

  • annie

    I had a Shakespeare professor named Don John. He hated his name but loved this play, and I got that from him. I want to see this for the cast and crew because they're amazing with amazing if not perfect material from old Shakes himself. But how will it match up to the high standards set up by Catherine Tate and David Tennant as Benedick and Beatrice? Hmm.

  • Robert

    " The action is updated to the present day yet the language is the same as it was 400 years ago."

    As a Shakespeare fan, I applaud him for doing what every theater company has done for hundreds of years. If the modern setting makes sense for the play, you can use the modern setting without rewriting the script. I saw a wonderful production of The Winter's Tale done in the round at a dinner party. I saw a very inventive The Taming of the Shrew reset in a 1950s diner. One of my former students starred in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream set outside in an open field with various configurations of patio furniture. Not one of these productions rewrote the script to answer why the characters weren't in full Shakespearean garb.

    This is, without a doubt, one of the laziest lines of Shakespearean criticism around. You aren't the only one who makes this argument but that doesn't mitigate its shear stupidity. If you accept a Shakespeare play onstage where, no, a bear does not actually come onstage to eat the sorry courier in The Winter's Tale, and you accept the artificiality of a sound stage as used in some of the greatest film adaptations of all time, then your brain is perfectly capable of imagining the story in yet another fake version of reality.

    Unless you really think painted flats and plastic trees are real when you see a Shakespeare play onstage. Then you might have bigger problems than continuing one of the dumbest and most dismissive criticisms of classic theater around.

  • cicatricella

    I actually really liked Keanu as Don John, I thought he was surprisingly well-suited to the part.

  • You know, I don't even really care if it's any good. I'm just excited to be seeing my Whedon favorites on screen together again. Wesley! Fred! Mal! etc., etc.,

  • PerpetualIntern

    Andrew!!

  • BWeaves

    Dammit, I wanted to see these men in codpieces.

    Also, can someone please string together all of Nathan Fillion's bits and put it on the web, as that's really all I want to see?

  • ShagEaredVillain

    You keep the dialogue the way it is because it's open source. You put it in a different setting because it's fun. You give the worst actor Don John because it's simply HOW THINGS ARE DONE.

    The dialogue is brilliant and enduring. It's not a matter of a talented actor breathing life into dead text. It actually takes a profoundly bad one to suck the life out of it.

    Updated and time-shifted Shakespeare way more interesting than period-appropriate settings. Richard III with Ian McKellan as a quasi-Hitler literally pissing through his opening soliloquy? Romeo+Juliet as privileged white kids running around Brazil with guns? FUN.

    They probably handcuffed Don John to keep Maher from awkwardly leading with his hands when he got out of the car. (Seriously, rewatch "Objects in Space." The dude is trying to swim his way around the ship.) But yes: Keanu Reeves. Every Don John before and after can just point and laugh.

    This movie is like going to see friends in live theatre. You do it because you love the people, respect the material, and support the tradition.

    Needless to say, I want to go to there. Hard.

  • Matt Roney

    Ok, see, THAT'S what I was trying to get at.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Breathing life into Shakespeare’s words is notoriously difficult for any actor...

    er, let's dispel that myth. It's really not. It's not easy, but it's not difficult, and it's certainly not difficult for *any* actor.

    I haven't been able to get excited about this - but hearing that Fillion nails Dogberry makes me happy.

  • ruby

    Is that really so surprising? He seems like such a good fit for the part.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I had assumed he'd be Benedick when I first heard about the project, and learning he wasn't turned me off it a bit. (also, header pic? I keep thinking that's Ed Helms in profile) And, for me, the clowns in Shakespeare are the hardest to nail, because their humor is the farthest from what we still consider funny today. (malapropisms are just not a gimme any more.)

    I'm not a Whedon-lover - I like Firefly but am not attached to his other stuff.

  • Pentadactyl

    I'd just rewatched Dr Horrible when I heard about this movie. So when I heard who Fillion was cast as, I was like "Perfect!!!" He's got a lot of range though, even in just Whedon projects (Caleb, Mal, Captain Hammer), so it's not hard to imagine him as anything.

  • ruby

    Fair enough. When the casting news for this went up I had just see a live production of the play and I immediately began to see him doing a great Dogberry in my head. You've certainly got a good point re: malapropisms today, though I think that (due to that) a good Dogberry is all in the delivery. The big guy who thinks he knows what he's doing but doesn't is still a trope in use, (e.g. Chris Pratt on Parks and Rec.)

  • the_wakeful

    If nothing else, it produced possibly the best trailer of all time.

  • Matt Roney

    I just want to point out that restaging a Shakespearean play in another period--modern or otherwise--with the Elizabethan dialogue intact is seriously nothing new. Who knows how many productions of Julius Caesar have been placed in a corporate boardroom, for example. Hell, once I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company perform The Tempest set in the 1930s. The island was in the Arctic Circle, Ariel was male and creepy, and the ship was an ocean liner.

    I ALSO want to point out that Patrick Stewart was Prospero in that production of The Tempest. Actually, looking back, this comment MAY simply be an excuse to brag about having seen Patrick Stewart do Shakespeare live. Maybe not. I'll never tell.

  • Deidra

    Was anyone trying to point out that this was breaking new ground? Given that this has been done before, it becomes much more about the execution, which Dan notes was off in his opinion.

  • Robert

    He opened the review by questioning how the director would justify the old text in a modern setting. That's why this kind of response happened to this review. It was a willfully ignorant attempt to ignore hundreds of years of theater and film history to justify without justifying at all his view of the adaptation.

  • Matt Roney

    It wasn't said that it was "breaking new ground," but that the staging is more modern while still retaining the dialogue has been the first thing mentioned in nearly every review I've seen of this. Dan notes in the first paragraph, "The action is updated to the present day yet the language is the same as it was 400 years ago," then suggests that this seems to have been done for financial reasons. He's right, for all I know. All I'm saying is that this is hardly the first presentation of Shakespeare to have updated the staging--in fact, there's something of a tradition of it--and explaining that update isn't necessarily required.

  • Deidra

    Agreed that it's become a tradition, but for me, the staging is my first question when it comes to any translation of Shakespeare's works and would be the necessary first question.

  • Joe Grunenwald

    The header image of Wesley and Fred together again fills my heart with such joy.

  • birdgal

    YES.

  • Scully

    Thou wimpled rude-growing scut! I care not for these lies and deceit.

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