Thursday, June 13, 2013

Review: Much Ado About Nothing

A black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation filmed in less than a fortnight might seem an odd film for a summer movie release, but Joss Whedon's take on the Bard is actually perfect summer entertainment. It's sweet and refreshing and leaves you with a smile on your face; it's like a tall glass of ginger beer on a hot day.

Leonato (Clark Gregg) is hosting a get-together consisting of "prince" Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his entourage. Abetting him in his duties as host are his daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) and niece Beatrice (Amy Acker). Beatrice seems to have mixed feelings about the event as included in Don Pedro's retinue is Benedick (Alexis Denisof) with whom she has a "merry war" of words (said war seems to have its origin in a silent pre-credits sequence that implies Beatrice and Benedick had a brief fling that didn't end well). Soon a party is under way and things get complicated: Hero catches the eye of Claudio (Fran Kranz) and the two instantly plan to marry; Don Pedro's sullen brother Don John (Sean Maher) decides he wants to be a total jerk and sabotage the Hero/Claudio engagement; and the friends of Beatrice and Benedick plan to make the bickering couple realize they love each other. Things take a turn for the grim when Don John's plan succeeds, but true love gets an assist from some bumbling constables led by the well-intentioned if dim-witted Dogberry (Nathan Fillion).

Much Ado About Nothing isn't Shakespeare the way most of us have experienced it (reading it in high school). For one thing, it proves that the play is meant to be seen performed, not just read as text. It's set in modern day, and though its players get messages by iPhone and wield guns instead of swords, the language is still Shakespeare's. In a way, setting the play in a modern era helps rather than hinders comprehension of the language and wordplay. It isn't long before the language seems natural (it also helps that the actors use their everyday voices and accents, though I was so used to seeing Denisof in his role on Angel that it was jarring to hear him without a British accent). Shot at Whedon's home and shown in gorgeous black-and-white, the movie is lovely in a subtle, non-showy way that's welcome amid the more garish summertime cinema offerings.

Setting and cinematography aside, the success of the play is contingent on its actors, and every person here is up to the challenge. It's true that the cast is primarily alumni from Whedon's TV and movie work, but when your friends are as talented as these are, you're allowed to put them all in your movie. The heart of the film belongs to Acker, who gets the full range of emotions as she goes from her banter with Benedick to realization that she loves him to outrage when her cousin Hero's honor is besmirched; and to Denisof, whose rants against romance are a facade to protect himself from heartbreak (a facade that's destroyed the instant he realizes that Beatrice loves him) - the two also do some nifty physical comedy too. Gregg brings his down-to-earth everyman charm to Leonato, and Maher smolders malevolently while causing chaos just because he can. And stealing every scene they appear in are Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as constables Dogberry and Verges, with delightful comic chemistry and timing as they jockey for the alpha male position and help bring justice through sheer ineptitude.

The movie never quite loses its "let's put on a show" feel, and the seams show on occasion (particularly the "police station" scenes, where the set appears to be a dining room with a white board and banker boxes added). But those only make everything that much more endearing. It's a lark, and a tremendously enjoyable one.

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