Much Ado About Nothing (2012)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/21/13 05:25:28
(Worth A Look)
The best romantic comedies have always seemed to be almost effortless--so much so, in fact, that it is often easy to forget just how much work it takes to make a good one. There needs to be a sprightly script with plenty of wit and charm, snappy dialogue and a story that doesn't require its characters to act like idiots in order to get from one plot point to the next. There need to be characters who are smart, charming and likable enough so that there is actual rooting interest in seeing them get together despite all the odds. Perhaps most importantly, they require actors with just the right type of on-screen chemistry to make the dialogue crackle and sparks fly to such a degree that even the most cynical viewers can believe--if only for a little bit--that they will indeed live happily ever after.Unfortunately, these elements require time, talent and not a small amount of luck to come together quietly, so most people today are simply content to throw together hackneyed situations (usually involving a big misunderstanding or clandestine wager), uninteresting characters who wind up together only because the screenplay requires that they do, a montage or two and the presence of Kate Hudson, Katherine Heigl or their current equivalent. Needless to say, the results--both for the films and the genre as a whole--have been fairly dire as of late but as "Much Ado About Nothing" proves, the big-screen romantic comedy still has some life left in it. To be fair, this is William Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" that we are talking about, a work that has had a few hundred years in which to workshop out any possible problems. That said, there have been enough shoddy Shakespeare adaptations over the years to demonstrate that even the strongest material can founder in the wrong hands. that is not the case here and not only is the end result one of the better romantic comedies of late, it is one of the better recent cinematic takes on the Bard as well.
For those unfamiliar with the play--for shame!--"Much Ado About Nothing" kicks off as Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), returning from a successful campaign against treacherous brother Don John (Sean Maher), pays a visit to his old friend and governor of Messina Leonato (Clark Gregg). Accompanying him in his travels are his two most trusted officers, Benedick (Alexis Denisoff) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) and they have hardly arrived when Claudio meets Leonato's daughter, the lovely and fragrant Hero (Jillian Morgese), and falls instantly and helplessly in love with her. Also staying at the house is Leonato's feisty niece Beatrice (Amy Acker) and as we know for certain thanks to a brief prologue, she and Benedick are very familiar with each other, though they are now more consumed with tossing barbs at each other instead blowing kisses. However, it is obvious to everyone around them that the two still have feelings for each other and just for fun, Leonato, Don Pedro, Claudio and Hero plot amongst themselves to force Benedick and Beatrice to admit it.
At the same time, the growing love between Claudio and Hero cannot be denied and a marriage between them is quickly arranged by Don Pedro and Leonato. This is just the opportunity for revenge that Don John has been waiting for and he soon turns up along with fellow rotters Conrade (Riki Lindhomme) and Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) with a plan to convince Claudio just before the wedding that the pure and virtuous Hero does not come quite as advertised. His plot works fiendishly well and a crushed Claudio denounces Hero in front of the entire wedding party and leaves her crushed and heartbroken, Don Pedro embarrassed and Leonato outraged. However, neither Beatrice nor Benedick believe the accusations and when local cop Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) proves to be spectacularly ineffective, they plot to both expose the plot against Claudio and Hero and reunite the two lovers, all the while trying, with increasing difficulty, to deny their own attraction to each other.
It may comes as a surprise to some of you to learn that this version of "Much Ado About Nothing" was the brainchild of none other than writer/director Joss Whedon, the man behind such cult favorites as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly" as well as last year's superhero smash "The Avengers." In fact, bringing this play to the screen has evidently been his passion project for years and it shows--not only did he finance the film himself and shoot it in secret in a mere 12 days during a brief break in the post-production period of "The Avengers, he actually filmed the entire thing in his own home in Santa Monica. Whedon and Shakespeare may sound like an odd combination on the surface but they do turn out to have several key things in common--both favor narratives featuring ensemble casts anchored by strong female characters and both like to tell stories that can switch between light comedy and more thoughtful and dramatic elements in such a delicate manner that you hardly register the shift in tone until after it has occurred.
Granted, the idea of any form of modern-day Shakespeare adaptation may cause the hairs on the necks of some people to stand on end just on general principles but in this case, it really does work. Happily, Whedon is smart enough to know a good story when he sees it and in transforming the material to the screen, he has largely resisted the urge to monkey around with the material by contemporizing it or creating some elaborate excuse as to why the characters are all speaking in iambic pentameter. Instead, he simply plunges into the text and assumes that his audience is smart enough to follow along and since the story is pretty a dialogue-heavy meditation on the age-old questions of love, honor, betrayal and trust, it shifts easily enough into a current time frame without too many awkward transitions to be had. The result is a film that feels as modern and familiar as any that you could name and whatever distancing effect there is to the different manner of speaking disappears as soon as the basic emotions of the piece come through.
When Kenneth Branagh was making his 1993 film version of the play, he went the all-star cast route with an ensemble ranging from himself and then-wife Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton and, perhaps inevitably, Keanu Reeves. This was an interesting idea but the wildly divergent acting approaches and personalities resulted in a clash of tones that often threatened to overwhelm the delicacy of the material. For his version, Whedon has elected to assemble his cast almost entirely from the ranks of the informal repertory company he has acquired over the years through his various projects. As far as I can tell, there is not a bum performance in the bunch and some are quite exceptional--Amy Acker delivers Beatrice's lines with just the right snap and, in one key scene, demonstrates a flair for physical comedy that manages to be hilarious and touching in equal measure while Nathan Fillion steals his every scene as the clueless Dogberry. In fact, this cast plays so nicely off of each other that I wouldn't mind seeing them all regrouping to do some other Shakespeare-related films--just imaging what they could do with "The Tempest," for example.Coming as it does during a movie season in which none of the big-ticket items are paying off as one might hope, "Much Ado About Nothing" is an admittedly small but otherwise unreserved delight that will charm Shakespeare buffs and ordinary moviegoers alike. It is well-staged, gorgeous to look at (thanks to its luminous black-and-white photography) and even its few directorial excesses--such as an engagement party sequence that runs on just a little too long and indulges in too many loving shots of a Cirque de Soliel-like group serving as part of the entertainment--are entirely forgivable under the circumstance. See it with someone you love. Heck, see it with someone you loathe--who knows what might happen as a result?
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