27 June 2013

FOR WHICH OF MY BAD PARTS DIDST THOU FIRST FALL IN LOVE WITH ME?

It's an open question whether Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing really deserves to exist at all. Made during post-production on the writer-director's mammoth effects extravaganza The Avengers, and specifically intended to clear his head and wash the taste of green screens and Disney/Marvel's omnipresence out of his mouth, the film is populated with a host of actors from his various TV projects, all goofing around in Whedon's huge (and honestly, sort of fussy) Santa Monica house and yard. Apparently, "let's do a Shakespeare reading!" parties have been a fixture of the Whedon home for some time now, and for once, he decided to fully stage and film it. So what we've basically got here is a home movie of a bunch of friends and colleagues putting on a show, and as sweet as it is, it never quite shakes off the feeling that the world would not be manifestly worse off if Whedon just made a present of it to all the collaborators, never to share it with any outsider, as when Steven Soderbergh made a private gift of The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg to its cast, the ensemble of a stage play he was directing at the time.

All of this is moot, of course. We do have the Whedon Much Ado out in the world for ever and always, and as much as it's a visibly rough, DIY sort of thing, it's not at all without its charms; indeed, the DIY quality is very much part of what makes it charming, and makes it possible to agree to overlook some of the dodgier missteps of acting or staging (there are surprisingly few of the latter, perhaps because the director knew the location as intimately as one conceivably could). It is, for better or worse, a film that is plainly not taking itself at all seriously in any regard, which discourages us from taking it seriously either. If the result is less tony, polished, conceptually sound, and admirable than the 1993 Much Ado spearheaded by Kenneth Branagh (still the best filmed adaptation of a Shakespeare comedy, which is admittedly not a terribly competitive achievement), it makes up for it by being funnier, and given the imposing cultural barriers involved, making a filmed Shakespearean comedy consistently and genuinely funny is certainly no mean feat.

Bumping the material up to the present day, Whedon's thoroughly faithful realization of the text is not particularly thought-through - why do all these people meandering around in what could not be any other place than Southern California keep using Italian place-names? - and besides "because the director had easy access to it, and it is ludicrously photogenic", there's never an entirely satisfactory answer to why this story has to take place in this setting (it becomes especially weird when the action shifts to a child's bedroom, demanding that we confront who among any of the characters onscreen could possibly have children).

But again, a certain shagginess isn't just built in to this adaptation, it's driving it, and what simply dropping Much Ado into the 2010s without self-consciously showing us how he's worked through all of the details, as in William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Whedon manages to knock quite a lot of fustiness out of the film, thus staying clear of one of the biggest traps that every Shakespeare movie has to be aware of. "Just enjoy the ride", implies the occasionally off-kilter staging, and boy, if the rest of the film isn't dedicated to making that possible: the breezy line deliveries that do their damnedest to bury the metrical rhythms of the writing, the coolly jazzy score (composed by Whedon himself), the too-sharp, fashion-magazine glossy black and white cinematography by Jay Hunter.

It's a relentelessly casual, modern Shakespearean comedy, then, one buoyed up some terrific physical comedy in the staging (and Whedon is fantastic at coaxing goofy reaction shots out of his actors), and served fairly well by a cast that treats it all as so much screwball sex farce banter. And that's kind of the problem as well: Much Ado '12 Edition is fizzy and shallow by design, and it glosses over all the sharp edges and insights that make the play work (though at the same time, rendering this play, with its central bickering lovers, as a conventional romantic comedy pays off better than the same approach would with the more complex Twelfth Night or As You Like It). The cast is uniformly better than I'd expected, though the only generally flawless performance is Clark Gregg's Leonato; outside of him (and Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, a one-note comic figure that the actor plays with unmodulated gusto), not a single major player escapes from the movie without a few lines where it's clear that they don't quite have a handle on what the words they're saying mean, with Alexis Denisof in particular, as Benedick, appearing to never have quite managed to convince himself that using archaic language in the context of Whedon's palatial home is a defensible idea.

But some infelicities of language aside, the actors have pretty solid chemistry, and Amy Acker's Beatrice is an effectively sardonic, modern-tastes expansion of a character who is, outside of AYLI's Rosalind, already the most contemporary-feeling woman in a Shakespearean comedy (weirdly, the lines that give Acker the most trouble aren't the most obscure ones; I get the impression that iambic pentameter was a bigger stumbling block for her than Elizabethan syntax). Like the rest of the movie, she trades in shadings of character for momentary effect: the underlying bitterness that can (but doesn't have to be) a component of Beatrice's personality is present but awfully muted, and she's too willing to play the part on the surface; but that's what fits the performances around her, and the movie itself.

The whole thing is a trifle, pretty clearly, and on that level it works. Much Ado requires less work than many of Shakespeare's plays to begin with, even among the comedies, and by transmitting it more or less directly as a stylish but simple comedy of sophisticated people spouting witty imprecations at each other, Whedon humanises the material and situates it in an easy-to-watch register. There are moments of cleverness (the climactic use of a smart phone is one of the best modern-day Shakespeare touches I've ever seen), and moments of inspired comic staging, and very little probing insight, either cinematic or literary. But it proves better than any other modernised adaptions of Shakespeare that I can name that there's a way to freshen up the feeling of the plays without attempting to subvert them in any way, making an overfamiliar classic seem bright and fresh. One for the groundlings, perhaps; but they were always the biggest part of Shakespeare's audience.

7/10

6 comments:

David Greenwood said...

Hmm... Though I love Shakespeare I despite the Whedon cult. The man has talent, but I always feel like by watching his product I'm one of the mewling fan-persons who fall all over themselves to worship everything he does. And it doesn't sound like things could get much more self-referential and insider than this.

Still, I'll probably catch it on Netflix, if only to compare to the Branagh version. You're correct, legitimately funny stagings of Shakespeare comedies are rare indeed.

David Greenwood said...

God, there were so many typos in the comment I'm just embarrassed now.

Sam Lasky said...

After watching Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, I am not surprised that Whedon composed the score.

Speaking of which, what did you think of Dr. Horrible?

Great review as usual, Tim.

Brian said...

Let's see? Theatre major. Routinely refers to Joss Whedon as God. Am absolutely in love with Amy Acker. Considers Shakespeare the greatest writer that ever lived, not just by reputation, but by having actually read the works. Yup, movie aimed right at me.

*Checks theater listings for film* Nowhere within less than a nearly 2 hour drive? Of course. Fuck.

Hyzenthlay said...

"One for the groundlings..." Ouch! Oh well. I can't say I'm as big a Shakespeare fan as I am of Whedon, but I can't think of any reason to say no with this cast. Admittedly I'm certainly the one that would eat the Whedon Wheaties without much question.

Tim said...

Well, I don't mean groundlings in a bad way. They're the ones who made Falstaff a popular character, after all.