Warning: I am a Shakespeare nerd.
Shot in his own house, working with an intentionally tiny budget, and casting actors that he knows personally, director Joss Whedon (he of the massive cult following) took a break from all the ultra-hype surrounding last summer's noisy blockbuster supra-event The Avengers to make a hasty, breezy, quick rendition of Shakespeare's comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.” While the result comes across more as a playful midsummer trifle than an earnest exploration of the Bard's words, it's at least refreshing to know that Whedon can work on various levels. Now if he could only do something substantial with his material.
“Much Ado About Nothing” (c. 1599) is one of Shakespeare's more joyous plays, full of quick wit, romantic misunderstandings, sexual innuendo, and characters so frothy and upbeat, they crack jokes even when they learn of someone's death (although that particular scene is usually cut from most productions). I have seen several productions of “Much Ado” from hastily assembled church productions to Kenneth Branagh's peerless 1993 film version, which is perhaps the best production the play could warrant. Joss Whedon's production has more in common with playful college troupes and public park summer stock performances than a daring cinematic unraveling of a complex text. The performances are thrown off rather than acted, and the dialogue merely memorized rather than actually spoken with weight or meaning. This is not to say it's a horrible production – you can tell the cast is having a great time playing around with The Bard at Whedon's immense mansion (decked out with the usual bourgeoisie accoutrements – maids, unread books, breakfast nooks – often seen in movies about rich people), but the production does have an off-the-cuff quality that undercuts a lot of the potential drama and even a lot of the natural humor that Shakespeare so deftly penned all those weeks ago.
The story, for those who are unfamiliar, follows a young soldier named Claudio (Fran Kranz) who has just returned from foreign wars with his elders, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and the wisecracking Benedick (Alexis Denisof). Claudio is to sped time at the palace of Leonato (Clark Gregg) partying and making merry, when he instantly falls in love with the pretty Hero (Jillian Morgese), who is the cousin of Benedick's ex-girlfriend Beatrice (Amy Acker), a spirited shrew and one of Shakespeare's most celebrated characters. Much of the plot is devoted to a scheme to get Beatrice and Benedick back together, mostly because they are clearly a perfect match. There is also some mistaken identity trickery by the evil Don John (Sean Maher) intended to break up Hero and Claudio, and even some public humiliation and faked death along those lines. But this is a comedy, so it must inevitably end with at least one marriage, punishment of the guilty, and rewarding of the innocent.
The stories and misunderstandings are told well in this production, and Whedon wisely incorporates a good deal of the original text (the film runs a casual 107 minutes). The problems, though, come from what can only be described as a clear lack of dramaturgy; as if no one bothered to really delve into the material for a proper interpretation of it, content to repeat the lines for the sake of hearing them. For the most part, the actors speak their lines as if they are uncomfortable with the Elizabethan language, and didn't bother to infuse their line reading with either a natural ease or with a portentous poetry. The latter may not sit well with modern audiences (especially Whedon's fans who are likely accustomed to his particular brand of pop culture banter), but the former could have easily been executed, and wasn't. The only actors who really handle the material well are Clark Gregg, who projects a kind of wisdom in his Leonato, and Fran Kranz, the only actor to be easy and comfortable in the heightened dramatic world of The Bard. As Beatrice, Amy Acker presents herself well, and does, for brief moments, allow the natural wit of the character to rise to the surface (her reading of the “That were I a man” speech is first rate). As a foil, though, Alexis Denisof is a weak and unassuming Benedick, not only upstaged by Beatrice but by pretty much every other character. His readings of spirited and expressive dialogue are tamped down and nearly killed by a deadpan delivery that robs a convivial play of its natural energy.
Indeed, thanks to deadpan deliveries largely across the board (not to mention a few actors with mealy-mouthed rich valley girl accents, I'm looking at you Riki Lindhome) much of what is usually a frothy and crackling play feels rote and straightforward. When the comical police clown Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) shows up, you expect the slapstick to take off in earnest (these scenes are full of buffoonery and malapropisms of the highest degree), but apart from a few cute shots of background mugging, the humor never really takes off even in these scenes.
These kids know the words, but not the music.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind. If you want to buy him a gift (and I know you do), you can visit his Amazon Wish List.