Friday, June 7, 2013

A Weekend-Long Party: Much Ado About Nothing

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I wrote previously of Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing when it played the San Francisco International Film Festival, and mentioned my history with Shakespeare and cinematic adaptations. In short, I tend to prefer those movies that simply adapt the stories (think West Side Story) over those that reproduce them faithfully (like Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet).

Whedon's take is in between. While there have been several Shakespearean adaptations that retain his texts but update the setting, Whedon's immediately brought to mind that 2000 version of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawk and Bill Murray, because both films are respectful of Shakespeare, while also recognizing and poking fun at some of the plays' more...dated aspects.

Whedon shot Much Ado in black and white, on a very low budget, in his own home with a lot of his friends as the cast. So isn't it lucky that he's got an amazing, mountainside Southern California house (designed by his wife), and friends who also happen to be amazing actors who have, for the most part, all appeared in previous Joss Whedon ventures?

Amy Acker, ("Angel"; "Dollhouse"), is Beatrice, who appears to be the complete opposite of a romantic, forever poo-pooing the very notion of love and marriage. Alexis Denisof, ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") is Benedict, her male match, at least in terms of dismissing love. They, are gathered at the home of Beatrice's uncle, Leonato, (played by Clark Gregg of The Avengers), to welcome the arrival of Prince Don Pedro (Reed Diamond, "Dollhouse"), and his (evil) brother Don John, (Sean Maher, Serenity). At Don Pedro's side is his officer, Claudio, (Fran Kranz, "Dollhouse;" The Cabin in the Woods), who falls in almost immediate love with Leonato's daughter--and Beatrice's cousin--Hero, (newcomer Jillian Morgese, who can be seen briefly in an exploding restaurant scene in The Avengers.)

They're all there to...well, that really doesn't matter. The thing that matters is, it's a weekend-long party, with wine ever-flowing, nameless guests forever wandering about, and villains endlessly plotting. They want nothing more than to see Don John and Claudio miserable, so they conspire to put an end to the burgeoning love and inevitable wedding. Will the bumbling security guard Dogberry, save the day?

(Dogberry is played by Nathan Fillion, who's basically been in at least half of everything Whedon's ever done, and he gives the funniest performance in the movie. The whole thing is worth seeing just for his never-ending outrage over being called an ass.)

Shakespeare would seem an odd choice for a filmmaker who's much more heralded for his dialogue than he is his direction. What's Whedon without his trademarked quips and pop-culture-filled exchanges? Well, he's a damned good comedic director, is what he is, and he peppers the film with several moments of deft physical comedy, drunken line-deliveries, and a fair amount of sex.

The one place in which the adaptation falters a bit is in the final act's wedding, where Hero's "purity" is put into doubt, and Claudio basically slut-shames her into unconsciousness. If that sounds ridiculous, it is. It's one thing to have such a sexist plot development in Shakespeare's era. But it's much harder to swallow when presented in a modern setting,

But, as (spoiler alert?) the whole thing proves, within the play, to be much ado about nothing, so do any objections I may have had with it. Ultimately, Joss Whedon has crafted one of the most enjoyable Shakespeare adaptions I have ever seen.