Joss Whedon's new black-and-white vision of "Much Ado About Nothing."
Much Ado About Nothing
When you have material on the order of William Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," the trick is, essentially, not to screw it up. Easier said than done, of course: There is no greater hell than sitting through poorly acted and directed Shakespeare. With a low-key concept and a troupe of likeable performers, Joss Whedon delivers a take on "Much Ado" that's the equivalent of a breezy, if disposable, Shakespeare in the Park production.
So this micro-indie version of the prototypical romantic comedy doesn't screw it up, despite being shot in a mere 12 days at the director's home. It helps that the director is a certified lover of language, eager for some meaty material during a post-production break from work on the smash blockbuster "The Avengers." We all know how that worked out, to the tune of more than $1.5 billion in worldwide box office. Though "Much Ado About Nothing" won't be pulling in those kinds of numbers, it's sure to make a tidy profit.
To quote another Shakespeare comedy," "No profit grows where is no pleasure ta'en," and it's clear Whedon and pals had a good time making this third big-screen adaptation of the play. Setting aside the 1913 silent film, Shakespeare-on-film buffs will inevitably compare Whedon's version with Kenneth Branagh's well-liked 1993 film. This likelihood explains Whedon's reactionary style. Where Branagh had horses and swords and lutes, Whedon's modern-dress version has cars and guns and guitars. Where Branagh romped colorfully under the Tuscan sun, Whedon coolly trips through shadows using black-and-white photography.
These are canny choices, of course, as the Branagh version isn't going anywhere, so there's no point competing with it. The game is to bring something new to the table. Branagh's approach to bringing Shakespeare to the people was all about high decibels and high energy, with a classically informed approach to the text. Whedon goes for a kind of radical naturalism, an understated approach that suggests the characters could be your friends and neighbors. If the result sometimes plays like a two-part episode of a family dramedy, it also allows for a largely distraction-free look at the play's human-behavioral roots.
Some of Branagh's bolder casting choices flopped (I'm looking at you, Keanu Reeves), but Whedon's company -- composed almost entirely of alumni from his TV series and films -- has a unified feel. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker play Beatrice and Benedick, the forerunners of "Cheers"' Sam and Diane, and "Moonlighting"'s Dave and Maddie: They're fools for love, too busy resenting each other to notice they're mad about each other. The actors here show an easy chemistry, helped along by Whedon's casually amusing staging choices (like having Benedick preen for Beatrice while working out in a track suit); so too do the stars ably handle the Bard's third-act turn into darker territory.
With the help of such ace performers as Nathan Fillion (as the malaprop-prone constable Dogberry), Whedon proves that the comedy still works as the playwright intended: When the knotty plot's untied, we feel lighter. And, happily, he's not unduly reverent with the material (as wittily played by Whedon, Claudio's "Were she an Ethiope line ... " takes a knock). Like most any Shakespeare presentation, this one takes some getting used to. Give it half an hour before you decide if you like Whedon's approach; it's liable to grow on you.
Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and brief drug use. One hour, 49 minutes.
- Peter Canavese