Saturday, June 8, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)
Dir. Joss Whedon

4.5 out of 5

Longtime cult entertainment icon and new Marvel wonder-boy Joss Whedon is the latest filmmaker to tackle the challenge of bringing Shakespeare to the masses in his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.  And what do you know: it’s one of the freshest, funniest, and most flat-out enjoyable films of the year so far.  Filmed in less than two weeks at Whedon's home in Santa Monica, this version of Much Ado has the electric feel of a family reunion that’s loose and laconic but still liable to burst into fireworks at any moment.  It doesn’t take long for sparks to fly between sparring former lovers Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), whose war of wits backgrounds the bur between Beatrice’s cousin Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese) and Benedick’s smitten comrade Claudio (Fran Kranz).  Whedon digs into his rolodex to round out the cast of merry dreamers and schemers, asking veterans of his projects in both TV (Firefly’s Nathan Fillion and Sean Maher) and film (The Avengers’ Clark Gregg) to flex their theatrical muscles.

Modern interpretations of Shakespeare can take a cheesy turn if there’s too much focus on the “modern” and not enough on the “Shakespeare.”  Thankfully, Whedon lets the Bard’s crafty plotting and cunning dialogue do the heavy lifting, and limits the present-day ornamentation to costuming and the occasional iPod.  His one major extrapolation is with the bumbling local constabulary led by a very funny Fillion and Tom Lenk, turning it into a parodic storm of the suspenders, shades, and stale coffee seen in nearly all TV police precincts.  The limitations of the shooting location - realized in crisp black and white photography that fits the film’s “past is present” motif - becomes another charming aspect.  Transporting the action to, say, a massive Italian villa wouldn’t improve the film one bit, not when there’s comedy to be mined from Benedick’s pacing of the same narrow garden staircase in the director’s backyard.

Much Ado About Nothing was made well before The Avengers raised Whedon’s stock to stratospheric heights, and you get the sense that he could have a nice career making freewheeling small-budget films if this whole superhero thing were to fizzle out.  The material is also a perfect fit.  He grasps what is really going on behind all the honeyed words and sly intimations - this is indeed one of the sexier Shakespeare adaptations out there - and capitalizes on the wonderful chemistry of his cast to leaven the sillier aspects of the play with serious romantic stakes (and vice versa).  Whedon’s treading familiar ground, dealing in characters whose best-laid plans are upset by a litany of near-misses and misunderstandings, but Much Ado is primarily a showcase for his stable of actors, particularly Acker, whose sharp tongue belies the romantic frustration behind her aching eyes.  Wisely eschewing the temptation to make a “definitive” version of Shakespeare’s enduring rom-com, Whedon's Much Ado services the source material while keeping its feet planted in his own whimsical, wistful world.

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