Much Acclaim About Almost Nothing
Lindsay Marshall | On Jun 19, 2013
Much Ado About Nothing is easy bait for would-be Shakespeareans. The low-hanging fruit of the comedies, it is the most translatable to a modern audience because of the simplicity of its plot and characters. In some ways, that makes it the best of his plays because in it he drafted characters so universal it takes no historical or cultural context to understand them. Beatrice and Benedick sizzle on the page, and the rest is really just a framing story for their romantic sparring.
I love this show. Even the flat, mostly pointlessly contrived villain Count John makes me all kinds of happy. The “merry war twixt” Beatrice and Benedick, the purity of Claudio’s and Hero’s love, the momentarily melancholy of the lonely prince – I love it all. When I heard that Joss Whedon, a filmmaker committed to making film in artistic community, was assembling his friends to adapt it, I was over the moon. A weekend, a black and white filter, and a really nice SoCal house, and voila! Much Ado.
I deeply wanted to adore this film. And I was set up to – I spent the morning pitching a screenplay, catching up with friends, then wandered down to Umami Burger and settled in at the Arclight two rows in front of Tom Lenk (Verges in Much Ado, better known to me as Andrew from Buffy). A beautiful Hollywood summer day, a play I adore, actors I love – the recipe was there, but it just somehow didn’t quite work.
The trouble with dropping Shakespeare into the present with no fanfare is that Shakespeare wrote his plays in actual time and space. No matter who skillfully a cast makes iambic pentameter seem to flow naturally (a great strength of this production), a director still has to address the culture trappings of the story. Marriage customs, occupations, political systems, and other historical infrastructure are the things upon which Shakespeare’s plots rest. And that is the Achilles heel of this production. Rather than, as Luhrman did with Romeo + Juliet, build a world in which the dialogue and conflict can make sense (Capulet and Montague lead separate gangs, guns are known by names like ‘rapier,’ etc.), Whedon simply dumps the text, edited but unaltered, into our present.
For the most part, this works brilliantly. It’s Shakespeare, after all and we wouldn’t continue performing his plays if they didn’t speak to us today. But the success of the more easily translatable bits of the play make the awkwardness of the rest unbearable. The marriage negotiations, the death of Hero, and Beatrice’s complaint at not being able to avenge her cousin due to the restraints upon her sex all jar. The rest of the play fits the contemporary setting so well, and the light, cheeky tone of the first act so charms, that it makes no sense that Claudio’s uninformed, public accusation against Hero would result in Leonato lunging at her in fury, much less her death from despair. Worse, the film makes no attempt to reconcile the classic conflict of the play, which stems from legally enforced, rigid gender stereotypes, with its overly hip, sexually-charged relationships between Beatrice and Benedick and John and the (now female) Conrade.
Still, it’s a fun glance at one of Shakespeare’s best comedies. Though overall the approach fails, Whedon’s vision succeeds splendidly with one of the weakest parts of the original script: Dogberry and his merry band of hapless guards. Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry is a clear spoof on his Castle success, but played in so earnest and innocent a manner that it’s impossible not to long for more scenes with him and his squad. He and Tom Lenk play Dogberry and Verges perfectly, and their performances outshine most of the leads.
But Amy Acker’s Beatrice is reason enough to endure 109 uneven minutes. The film’s shot in black and white, but I’d swear all her scenes are in color. Her Beatrice is so organic it’s easy to forget she’s speaking lines written over 400 years ago. She also succeeds in a commitment to physical comedy, especially in the scene when Hero and the maid try to convince her that Benedick secretly loves her, that gives a classic screwball comedy air to the otherwise sleek, modern, indie film adaptation.
Alas, for Benedick, Alexis Denisof is woefully outmatched. Nothing of the chemistry they built as Wesley and Fred during their Angel years remains, and Denisof occasionally slips into Sandy Rivers in comedic scenes. I almost expected Claudio and the Prince to start tossing random objects into his hair to see if he’d notice. It’s a sad day when the scenery-chewing Kenneth Branagh gives a subtler performance of Act III scene ii than you do.
That said, Denisof excels at times, which really just made me wish he could have brought that spark to every scene. He plays Benedick as a lazy bachelor, and it works marvelously, especially in the opening exchange with Claudio and later, after his transformation, his confrontation with Claudio and the Prince over Hero’s death. But it is too little and far too infrequent, which just highlights the great gap between Acker’s Beatrice and his Benedick.
As for the framing story, Clark Gregg makes an excellent Leonato and does his best to make motivation and action that only really work in the 16th century make sense in the 21st. Fran Kanz’s Claudio is heartfelt and well-played, though Robert Sean Leonard’s stunning performance looms like a disapproving ghost over every adaptation since. I won’t talk abut Don John or Hero, the former because it’s hard to believe how Sean Maher could manage a performance different from but equally grating to Keanu Reeves’, the latter because Jillian Morgese’s performance was utterly unforgettable and passionless. There are some wonderful minor characters, including Spencer Treat Clark’s villainous (then remorseful) Borachio, Riki Lindhome’s conniving Conrad(e), and Ashley Johnson’s spunky Margaret. Best of them all, and most surprisingly engaging, was Reed Diamond’s Don Pedro. Forget Denzel Washington, Diamond’s is the voice I will always hear utter my favorite line “we are the only love gods!”
Critics have made much over the fact that the film was shot on one location over the course of a few days. While it’s certainly worth an impressed raised eyebrow (I could hardly pull something this good off with such a short production schedule), I wonder why it was necessary. The uneven performances were easily fixable, obviously a result of a rushed shooting schedule. And editing or more creative visual storytelling would have helped the story feel better suited to its setting. As it is, the tone Whedon established in the first act made the characters’ reactions in the fourth completely nonsensical. I half expected Beatrice to haul off and slug Claudio in the nose when he called her cousin a whore in front of the press and wedding guests. A little more time and setup would have made it work.
But such is life when adapting Shakespeare. It is charming and I look forward to seeing it a second time, though I might wait for DVD so I can just skip to scenes with Acker, Diamond, Fillion, and Lenk and forget the rest of it ever happened.
Find more of Lindsay’s writing at The Narrow Gait.
Lindsay Marshall is a high school history teacher, lifelong student, intermittent writer, and avid horseback rider. You can find her thoughts on politics, history, film, and whatever else catches her attention at The Narrow Gait or Wheatstone Academy’s The Examined Life.