Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing (2013) – Review

Review: Much Ado About Nothing is an absolute joy. The film is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s comedic play about two couples Claudio and Hero and Beatrice and Benedick. Claudio and Hero are in love with each other and plan to marry, but Beatrice and Benedick loath each other, constantly engaged in a war of insults. Content with their own relationship, Claudio and Hero concoct a plan to bring Beatrice and Benedick together, with the help of friends and family. However, not all are included in this happy love and tomfoolery – the villainous Don John devises his own plan to ruin everything, just because he can.

 Writer-director Joss Whedon brings the play into a modern setting while keeping Shakespeare’s language. There is always an awkward disconnect between the modern backdrop and the words. It is true of this film as well, but Much Ado About Nothing seems to lend itself better to a modern framework than many of Shakespeare’s plays as the themes and characters translate just as vibrantly today as they did hundreds of years ago. Still, there are some moments that feel strange and do not fit the modern environment well – like guns replacing swords and the idea of a woman’s virginity being so important when being courted for marriage (which feels very outdated now).

Whedon uses black and white photography to give the film sort of a 1940s feel and look (even though it is set in present time), and the music score reinforces that feel as well (seemingly to create a modern yet timeless feel). However, the film does not cross over into noir territory tonally, as Whedon keeps it pretty light for the most part. But, there are still stylistic throwbacks. Dogberry and Verges, for example, feel like typical noir-era detectives, though again played for comedic effect, while Beatrice and Benedick could be interchanged with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (doing their best screwball comedy work).

What Whedon does exceptionally well with the material is that he captures the characters brilliantly, especially Beatrice and Benedick (who are both wonderfully played). The audience completely buys into their love/hate relationship, and Whedon’s decision to include a prologue showing that they had a previous sexual relationship only strengthens Beatrice’s case for why she is so scornful towards Benedick when he first appears. Whedon gives the audience something tangible that they can visually latch onto and relate to (while they are adjusting to the language). Additionally, Whedon has his actors play their emotions slightly bigger which greatly enables the audience to follow along.

Much Ado About Nothing has never been my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies (I love Twelfth Night) nor is it his funniest (based on other adaptations I have seen), but in Whedon’s hands it is as funny as it has ever been. Again, the actors play everything a little bigger, and thus the comedy is very physical if not slapstick (filled with pratfalls and big expressions), which works to great effect. This is an extremely funny film (probably the most laugh inducing film of the year so far). And as such, it is the joyous film experience of the year (it is hard not to have a big smile on your face while watching it).

However, the sometimes silly tone that the film takes with its comedic moments somewhat undermines its dramatic moments. The villainy of Don John just seems out of place, and when Claudio chastises Hero for what he believes are her crimes it comes off as unimaginably harsh – in that, given the light tone that the film has had until this moment, it feels preposterous that Hero and her father could ever forgive Claudio. The emotional and tonal swing between the buffoonery of the comedy and the sheer seriousness of the sudden emotional drama is almost too much. It is so abrupt and shocking that it is hard to except that things could be happy in the end (Beatrice literally wants Benedick to prove that he loves her by challenging Claudio to a duel – and in this version that includes guns – thus, Beatrice is earnestly asking Benedick to kill Claudio for what he did to her cousin; how does Claudio come back from that in the eyes of Beatrice, Hero, and Leonato?). As a result, the film feels a bit awkward in moments due to the drastic change in tone. That said, the comedy is too great to lose, and so the clumsy tonal shifts are easily forgiven.

Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing is probably the strongest (and best known) filmic adaptation of the play, as tonally and character wise everything works exceptionally well. However, Whedon’s film offers a version that is many ways exceeds it, particularly comically (and Beatrice, Leonato, Don Pedro, and Dogberry are fantastic, but I do love Branagh’s Benedick). Yes, the language is an obstruction for many (as will the black and white photography and noticeably low budget), but those willing to give Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing a chance will be delightfully enchanted.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Joss Whedon adapting one of Shakespeare’s plays just seems right. Whedon has always, if nothing else, been a master of langue and character, and Shakespeare was his teacher. Plus, Whedon and his friends periodically meet to casually perform Shakespeare’s work for fun. This film was inevitable. Whedon brings a great energy to the material, garnering wonderful performances that make the words come alive.

Whedon also composed music for the film. His score has a classic feel (again fitting the overall 1940s era vibe that the film has), and mostly serves as a mood setter for the film. Jay Hunter’s cinematography gives the film a very soft look with his black and white photography that feels very intimate (as if the viewer is just another member of the party), but the film also sometimes looks like a home movie, which is slightly distracting (it literally is a home movie, as Whedon shot it in his own home). Cindy Chao and Michele Yu’s production design at times has sort of a magical waft to it as the lights of Leonato’s party glisten against the night, while at other times seems very minimalist (which is mostly the case).

Even more so than either of Whedon’s first two features (Serenity and The Avengers), the performances here make the film special (as this completely lives or dies on them). Sean Maher definitely sets his Don John apart tonally from the other characters as he is utterly joyless, seemingly causing trouble merely because he is bored and wants to see the world burn (yes, that is a The Dark Knight reference). Jillian Morgese comes off as very sweet as Hero, but she is almost too bashful. She is somewhat lost in the mix. Fran Kranz seemingly is playing outside his comfort zone as an actor with Claudio, but he hits the right romantic notes and is devastating in his dramatic delivery. Reed Diamond (a standout among the cast) and Clark Gregg seem to be having an absolute blast as Don Pedro and Leonato respectively, and that is conveyed wonderfully to the audience who in turn is also having a great time. Nathan Fillion is goofy as Dogberry – a clueless hardboiled detective – but his sheer incompetence poorly veiled behind extreme confidence plays for splendid laughs. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker have phenomenal chemistry (something that all fans of Angel know well), and thus their Benedick and Beatrice carry the day. Denisof is wonderful in his dramatic moments, particularly when conversing with himself, but it is his aptitude for comedy that really endears him to the audience. Acker, on the other hand, has a fierce wit with each slight striking like a rapier thrust. Her Beatrice feels almost tragic. She is beautiful, yet love (or the absence of it) has left her bitter.

Summary & score: If nothing else, Much Ado About Nothing is film experience sure to bring pure joy, laughter, and happiness to its audience. 8/10

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