Review: Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing
It's hard to do Shakespeare right. You need a cast of actors up to the challenge, a director smart and savvy enough to add to the text, but not so showy as to upstage the Bard, and should a gimmick become part of the proceedings, the ice on which the film begins life suddenly becomes a whole lot thinner. Doing Shakespeare in modern times has its own added complexities. The dialogue is much harder to pull off when pressing play on an iPod than when sliding a sword in its scabbard, and many times modern stagings get caught up in their own cleverness or end up playing to the rafters to compensate (or, in the case of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, both). So much credit should be given to both the cast of Much Ado About Nothing and its director. This troupe has put on quite the show, making the modern spin work without calling attention to it, and nearly getting around the fact that the film was shot in twelve days and entirely in Joss Whedon's house in Santa Monica.

The film is faithful to the text (aside from one flashback that colors the core relationship nicely, and is smartly wordless to avoid aping the playwright), but rarely to a fault. Occasionally, plot elements feel a bit old-fashioned for the modern day Southern California setting, but the whole thing is played so well, and by such an impressive cadre of frequent Whedon collaborators, the film misses few steps in setting up the "merry war" betwixt Beatrice (Amy Acker) and her Benedick (Alexis Denisof). It's possible some of the thrills of the movie come from seeing these actors in these roles, but the chemistry between the two is electric. Denisof's Benedick is all smarm and machismo, while Acker is an absolute powerhouse, nailing the self-conscious wit, giving into the obliviousness of her attraction, and crushing the more dramatic moments. Also of note are Fran Kranz, whose Claudio is a revelation, and Nathan Fillion, who plays Dogberry as a puffed up Captain Hammer and kills every line. The whole cast is brilliant though, from Clark Gregg's laid-back Leonato (completely at home in the film's new setting) to Reed Diamond's boozy Don Pedro and Sean Maher's dastardly Don John.

The flourishes the film adds feel of a piece with the text itself, more like icing on a cake than an added course. Placing Claudio and Benedick's early interactions (and later, Benedick's swooning over a picture of Beatrice) in a little girl's room adorned with a doll's house and various stuffed animals, gives the actors something to play off of, and adds a sardonic undertone to all of their faux-masculine bragging. Setting the whole film as a boozy weekend at the home of Leonato is similarly brilliant, making some of the comic confusion and half-cocked schemes more believable as the characters down shots and sip cocktails. There's a broadness to much of the proceedings, giving everyone (but especially Denisof and Acker) the chance to engage in some physical comedy, and as is often the case, it works like gangbusters, letting the words pack the film with crackling wit while the actors flail about madly. In lesser hands, it might feel like mugging, but watching Denisof barrel roll across a lawn while eavesdropping on Claudio, Leonato, and Don Pedro is worth the price of admission alone.

Joss Whedon acquits himself incredibly well behind the camera, showing a keen sense of when to disappear and let the text carry things and a canny knack for just the right flourishes to make the emotions land. Highlighting acrobatic party entertainment as the cast entangles themselves increasingly within their schemes, lingering on a discarded bouquet when a coupling seems to disintegrate, and tracking across abandoned and empty cocktail glasses after mistakes have been made all underline the actions, but never feel forced or showy. This may not be Whedon's best film (my money is still on Serenity), but it is perhaps his best directed effort, a combination of restraint and wise choices that displays a mastery of the form something like Avengers was specifically engineered to avoid.

Much Ado About Nothing is my favorite of Shakespeare's comedies, and this version is directed by a man whose work I adore and stars a variety of people I have loved elsewhere before. Chances were quite slim indeed that I wouldn't enjoy this movie on some level. But just how well it comes off across the board is impressive. Walking out of the theater, I could count on one hand the things I would have changed (most explicitly, a scene set in a police precinct that is pretty obviously Whedon's dining room), and most of those added a ramshackle charm to the proceedings. Like most great stagings, this feels like people putting on a show, but the film displays its slight budget very rarely, and all of the directorial decisions make sure this never feels less than cinematic. Much Ado is a top-to-bottom delight, hilarious and heartwarming, dramatic and comedic, and ultimately completely winning. For fans of Whedon, Shakespeare, farce, or romance, this is an absolute must. Much Ado About Nothing is the most adept Shakespeare adaptation in years, losing neither the play's pleasures nor its weight, but adding something unique in the process.

Grade: A-

Read more of Jordan's Film Criticism here
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