Mark Reviews Movies

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Joss Whedon

Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Reed Diamond, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Sean Maher, Jillian Morgese, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome, Ashley Johnson

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sexuality and brief drug use)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 6/7/13 (limited); 6/21/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 20, 2013

Performing Shakespeare is more than just getting out the right words; it's even more than an actor understanding those words. Successful performance of Shakespeare depends entirely on the actors' ability to convey the meaning of those words to the audience, and to the movie's credit, the words are the focus of Much Ado About Nothing, writer/director Joss Whedon's minimalist modern-dress take on the famous comedy of love and deceit.

The spotlight on the text poses a problem, though, in that only a few of the actors are a match for the language. The rest fall into two categories: considered recitation colored with a broad attitude of confidence or simply saying the words as quickly as possible to ensure they're out there.

Such performances are why so many people consider Shakespeare a chore. They demand that the work of comprehension falls upon the audience, when, in reality, it's entirely the actors' job. One should be able to walk into a performance of Much Ado About Nothing (the work with the lewdest pun in the title still studied by high school students) without any previous knowledge of the play and still understand the plot and get the jokes—especially a condensed version of the play that streamlines the text to retain only most important of both, as is the case with Whedon's adaptation.

The movie was shot quickly (reportedly, in less than two weeks), and it shows. It never feels like the actors are fully—or, in some cases, even remotely—prepared for the task at hand.

Whedon's staging, though, is at times inspired, particularly in finding business for the actors informed by the text (The central lovers taking turns in making fools of themselves in the background as they each try to overhear a conversation aimed directly at them, for example, is quite amusing). The attempts to find ways to fill in the gaps of setting a decidedly period-specific play (royalty and nobles, governors and constables, and the sexual politics of the chastity of maidens) in modern times—already difficult to achieve—are another story.

Many decisions in this regard are poorly communicated or contradictory to the context of the play (It does not help that much of play contradicts modern sensibilities). The effort is there, but like a lot of modern-dress Shakespeare, the adjustment of period raises more problems than it solves.

The story begins with the arrival of Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) at the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg), where are also his niece Beatrice (Amy Acker) and daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese, really speeding through the lines), for some recreation after a battle. One would imagine that Don Pedro and his men, including the intellect-driven Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and the emotion-driven Claudio (Fran Kranz), would be soldiers, but instead, they are all dressed plainly in suits, carrying guns in holsters under their jackets.

Immediately, we are left scrambling to piece together the context of these characters (In what battle have they been involved?). It only becomes stranger when Don John (Sean Maher), Don Pedro's illegitimate brother, and his cohorts (Spencer Treat Clark and Riki Lindhome, who must struggle with the language and an odd bit of gender-reversed casting) are removed from a limo and cut out of plastic handcuffs. It's an image that instantly identifies them as villains, but there's no logic to the choice.

Once this strange modernization has been established, it becomes less of an issue until the movie's climactic misunderstanding (It sees Hero devastated by the accusation of not being a virgin, even though absolutely no one takes issue with the fact that Beatrice—given a backstory of being Benedick's spurned lover—is in a similar position). After a visually striking party in the fluctuating shadows of Jay Hunter's black-and-white cinematography (It's also clever how Whedon incorporates a song from the play, set to pop accompaniment, as the background music), the movie drops its artifice. The actors take over entirely.

The plot may be driven by the upcoming nuptials of Claudio and Hero (and the complications put forth by Don John), but the play's heart is in the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick—from a "merry war" of witty insults to an increasingly begrudging romance brought forth by gossip. Acker's performance, which suggests a sly but perhaps unfulfilled Beatrice, completely overshadows Denisof's, whose work as Benedick mostly consists of loading every line with a sardonic inflection. There's a broadness to the majority of the performances (As the story drifts into melodrama, those qualities do become strengths), although, it is, of course, perfectly appropriate for Dogberry, that master of malapropisms who wants to make sure everyone knows he's been called an "ass," played with deadpan precision by Nathan Fillion.

The most capable performance in the movie comes from Paul Meston, who appears briefly as the all-too-eager-to-scheme friar. He doesn't say much, but when he speaks, the language comes alive in a way the other actors cannot quite achieve. Communication is key with Shakespeare, and the lack of clear communication in Much Ado About Nothing is the trouble.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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